The ongoing contract dispute between Major League Baseball and the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues has reached the point where this is a very relevant question:
What if they gave a minor-league season and nobody came?
The 26 major-league teams recently pulled out of the joint winter meetings in Los Angeles and scheduled a separate vacation in not-so-sunny Chicago. If that didn't get the attention of the National Association, there is now the very real threat that the major leagues will take their balls and bats and minor-league prospects and find someone else to play with.
Don't laugh. There still is no new working agreement between MLB and the umbrella group that governs most of the minor-league clubs. The major leagues are trying to alter their long-standing relationship with the NAPBL and are meeting with surprisingly strong resistance. So MLB has decided to play hardball.
The commissioner's office has begun work on an alternative minor-league system, and already has had inquiries from potential franchise owners. In other words, MLB is threatening to take over the minor leagues and turn the NAPBL into a government in exile.
The specific issues might seem mundane to the average fan. The owners are insisting that the new working agreement with the National Association include provisions for better playing conditions, higher travel standards, improved working conditions for minor-league umpires and, in some cases, a reduction in the amount of direct compensation paid by the major leagues to the minor-league franchises.
To the clubs in the National Association, the issue is more one of control. The major-league owners want a much greater say in how the minor leagues are run.
The negotiations have been going on for months. There appeared to be an agreement on Oct. 31, but the deal fell through. The most recent bargaining sessions took place in Chicago last week, but the only thing that came of them was a more dismal outlook for any compromise. There is a last-ditch meeting scheduled for Tuesday in New York, but both sides appear unwilling to move.
"It's Tuesday or doomsday for them," said Bill Murray, MLB's director of baseball operations. "We have to get on with this. We have to get moving on next year."
Mike Moore, chief administrative officer of the NAPBL, concedes that the major leagues have the wherewithal to run their own minor-league system, but doesn't think that should even be an issue.
"I'm sure they could find a way to go forward without us, and I think we could go forward without them," he said, "but I don't think either side ought to be looking at that right now. I'm going to the meeting on Tuesday ready to discuss the issues. I hope they will do the same."
The impasse bred speculation that the major-league clubs would run their minor-league operations out of the various Arizona and Florida spring-training facilities, but a spokesman for the commissioner's office said it is more likely that attempts will be made to line up franchises in many of the cities that the NAPBL has abandoned as well as arrange for the temporary use of some college facilities.
The National Association remains defiant, but Major League Baseball appears to hold all the cards in this dispute. Following last week's fruitless bargaining sessions, a number of minor-league franchises indicated that they might try to operate independently if a new working agreement is not reached, but the financial future would be uncertain without support from the major leagues.
Left-hander Matt Young said yesterday that it's too early for him to have any feel for where he will be playing in 1991, but he is open to the possibility of signing with the Baltimore Orioles.
"I've always enjoyed pitching there," said Young, who has become the object of the Orioles' free-agent pitching search. "I've always considered Baltimore a nice place to go, but it's kind of mind-boggling to consider where I want to live. I've never been in this situation before."
Young was a free agent a year ago, but he was coming off a serious elbow injury and wasn't in a position to pick and choose. He has garnered far more interest this year, even though he had an 8-18 record with the Seattle Mariners.