By Mark Reutter A salary cap for baseball players is not the answer to the revenue gap between large-market teams and smaller franchises and should be "de-linked" in negotiations to end the baseball strike, a UI expert says. "Owners claim that a salary cap is necessary to prevent the rich and talented teams from buying up the best players. This argument is wrong both in theory and practice," says Stephen F. Ross, a UI law professor who specializes in sports law. The salary cap, in fact, has been a boon to the sport by enabling the managements of weaker teams to sign quality players through free-agency, or the open bidding for players with six or more years of major-league service. "Since the 1977 season, when free-agency was started, 22 teams have won division titles," Ross noted. "That compares with four teams that dominated in the years 1969 to 1976. Free agency has opened the door to greater rivalry among teams - to the benefit of fans and to club owners who have enjoyed higher attendance and gate receipts." A side effect of free bidding, of course, has been soaring salaries. Team owners propose to deal with multimillion-dollar player contracts by imposing a salary cap that would prevent any team from spending more than 110 percent of the league average for player talent. Owners claim a salary cap is needed to staunch the flow of red ink among 12 money-losing clubs. While the concern of the smaller owners is legitimate, Ross said, the solution is not a salary cap. "At present, each club keeps the revenue it can earn from local broadcasts and shares only a fraction of the receipts from live attendance at the ballpark. That creates huge disparities between big-city franchises like New York and smaller franchises like Seattle. It seems particularly unfair since fans in New York go to see the Yankees play against the Mariners' Ken Griffey Jr., not simply to see the Yankees put on an exhibition by themselves." Ross said the smaller franchises could be significantly strengthened by sharing 40 percent of revenue from live attendance with the visiting team and putting 40 percent of local broadcast revenues into a pot to be shared by all. He also proposes that owners consider adopting a version of the National Football League's "Rooney Rule," which bars the top teams in each league from signing any veteran free agents except to replace one of their own veterans lost to a rival's bid. "This proposal could enable the weak teams to spend what it takes to become contenders while preserving competitive options for all veteran players," Ross said. "It might reduce some multimillion-dollar offers, but players should be expected to share in some sacrifice. Right now, both sides need to play ball."