YOU'VE GOT to love major-league baseball owners, a group that doles out millions to .500 pitchers one minute, then tries to swindle minor-league operators the next.
Never mind the details of this latest dispute, which already has forced the winter meetings to shift from Los Angeles to Chicago, lest the two sides gather in the same hotel.
Basically, the majors want the minors to assume a greater percentage of operating costs, which is kind of like McDonald's asking franchise owners to pay for the switch to biodegradable wrappers.
The major-league owners, bless them, are negotiating with the same light touch that so endeared them to the American public when they locked out their own players last spring.
Greed is again the catalyst, but this conflict is more encompassing than the last. It reaches down to places like Hagerstown and Frederick, where Orioles' Double A and Class A prospects learn their trade.
The agreement between the two sides doesn't expire until Jan. 12, and despite the contentious state of the negotiations, there is still every reason to believe a settlement will be reached.
Major-league officials, however, are preparing a contingency plan that would eliminate the National Association, the representative body of the minor leagues, in favor of an entirely new system.
The system, to be implemented in stages, would put the Orioles' Triple A Rochester club in serious jeopardy. But it probably would have no immediate effect on Hagerstown and Frederick, according to Peter Kirk, a part-owner of both teams.
Unlike Rochester, both Maryland affiliates have player-development contracts with the Orioles that extend through 1992. Such commitments would be honored, major-league spokesman Jim Small said.
Player-development contracts, also known as PDCs, determine how many players the parent club sends its minor-league affiliate, as well as who pays for uniforms, bats, balls and other such necessities.
There would be only one problem for clubs with PDCs -- finding teams to play. Lucky Frederick would have four remaining rivals in the Carolina League. But Hagerstown would have only two in the Eastern League.
What would happen to teams without PDCs, like Rochester?
According to Small, they could do one of three things:
* Go independent, trying to sign players of comparable talent (the Miami Marlins and Salt Lake City Trappers are examples of Class A clubs that currently operate in this fashion).
* Sit out next season in support of the National Association, figuring they can resume play if the two sides reached agreement at a later date.
* Join the new major-league system as a way of covering costs. Rochester initiated a $4.2 million renovation on Silver Stadium four years ago; it is paying in installments of $360,000 a year.
"Our hopes would be to place as many franchises in existing minor-league cities as possible," Small said. "They'd operate under our agreement."
Orioles president Larry Lucchino, a member of the owners' negotiating committee, also acknowledged the possibility of "complex baseball" -- minor-league teams playing at spring-training complexes in Florida and Arizona.
Small, however, described that idea as "a last resort, a worst-case scenario." In any case, minor-league officials across the country are terrified by what is taking place. "There are a lot of people sweating right now," Rochester manager Dan Lunetta said.
For some, Kirk said, a return to the independent ways of old might prove appealing -- minor-league affiliates serve dual and often conflicting roles, developing players for the parent club while trying to please their hometown fans.
But for others, it's simply not realistic.
"If we do not have a new agreement, that will not bode well for the future operation of our franchise," Lunetta said. "We are one of those clubs -- and I don't know how many are out there -- who can't survive without a PDC."
Kirk, a member of the National Association negotiating team, is convinced a settlement will be reached. "Common sense will prevail," he said. "Actually, we're not very far apart." The remaining issues: Money, and the role of the commissioner in minor-league affairs.
No new talks are scheduled, but they figure to resume before the Jan. 12 deadline. Kirk, the Hagerstown and Frederick owner, said negotiating opposite Lucchino was "awkward, to say the least." The Orioles, he explained, maintain unusually close ties with their Maryland affiliates.
Still, Kirk displays the proper rebel's spirit, accusing the major leagues of "foolishness" when the mood strikes. Why, he's even thinking of ways to find new players; his 30-and-over club recently finished fourth in a national tournament.
"I play on a team," Kirk said. "I might sign myself."