Labor deal is first order of business Owners' vote due tomorrow on reopening negotiations

December 06, 1992|By Mark Hyman | Mark Hyman,Staff Writer

Most years at baseball's winter meetings, the most important announcements are the last to be made. A free-agent signing at 3 in the morning. A blockbuster trade as most general managers are checking out of the hotel.

This year, the meetings figure to work in reverse. Events later in the week may be worth noting. But the biggest news is due tomorrow.

The key announcement: Whether there will be a baseball season in 1993.

The 28 team owners can all but answer that question if, as expected, they reveal in Louisville, Ky., their decision whether to reopen their labor contract with the players union before next season.

For months, it has been assumed by baseball insiders that the contract would be reopened and that representatives of management and the players union would be hunkered down around a bargaining table next month.

The owners have that right -- so does the players' union -- under the four-year deal reached in 1990.

But the scouting report may have been premature. In recent weeks, the tide of sentiment among the owners appears to have shifted, suggesting that a majority opposes reopening.

The Orioles are said to be solidly against reopening talks. In a year when sellout crowds should be the norm, a disruption in the season would be extremely costly for the team's owners.

And last week, The New York Times reported another obstacle to renewed talks: a split among owners over a financial proposal presented to them by Richard Ravitch, their chief negotiator.

Ravitch, a former head of the New York transit system, recommended that the owner adopt a controversial plan to share their revenues, including money local television contracts, the Times reported.

Ravitch, who will not speak about any specifics of the proposal publicly, declined to predict which way the owners might vote tomorrow.

"I assume a [decision] will be made in Louisville, and I assume it will be announced when it is made," Ravitch said last week.

Team officials say as little as possible.

"Quite frankly, public discussion at this point is destructive," said Milwaukee Brewers president Bud Selig.

"It's a very confusing time to be in baseball management," said Atlanta Braves president Stan Kasten. "We are confronted with all sorts of economic problems. And we have a salary system that is not working."

What do the owners want? In baseball circles, this might be the toughest question of all time.

There are 28 major-league owners. Often, they approach labor negotiations with very different needs and priorities.

There are some things all owners agree on. They want lower costs, particularly lower player salaries. They want to expand revenues. They're worried about what their balance sheets will look like when the network television contract expires after next season.

The television contract is a particular source of concern among team officials. Baseball's record-breaking $1.05 billion deal with CBS and ESPN ends after the 1993 season.

The deal thrilled the owners, who divided the money equally, but has been a financial bust for the networks, who have taken heavy losses.

At a meeting last month, network executives briefed the owners on what to expect when they sit down to discuss the next TV deal. The news was grimmer than team executives had expected: predicted drops in revenue to the owners of 35 percent to 50 percent, according to sources familiar with the meetings.

With TV money likely to shrink, it's no coincidence that some owners are pushing hard for negotiations that might bring economic concessions from the players.

According to baseball's bylaws, a majority of the owners would have to favor the reopener for the talks with the players union to begin. But embarking on a protracted and potentially expensive labor negotiation on the strength of a one-vote majority might be risky.

If not 15 votes, how many will the owners require of themselves to reopen the contract.

Even this is a secret.

"The 28 clubs will make that decision. And we'll do it as a democracy," said Selig.

No owners have announced how they will vote, but in most cases the answer is less than mysterious.

Owners said to be leading the charge to reopen are, among others, Selig, Peter O'Malley of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Jerry Reinsdorf of the Chicago White Sox.

Why are they eager to take on the players union a year earlier than necessary? In part, perhaps, because they probably have less to lose financially than other owners.

If case of a lockout, all owners would suffer some financial losses. Every canceled game means millions in lost revenue from ticket sales, concessions and parking.

But for some owners, the liability ends there. The Dodgers, for instance, have been owned by the O'Malley family for more than three decades. If any debt is owed on the team, it probably is minimal.

On the other end of the ownership spectrum are the handful of teams purchased in the past five to six years: The Seattle Mariners, Detroit Tigers, Houston Astros and the Orioles, acquired by principal owner Eli S. Jacobs in 1989.

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