For openers, owners set to decide on reopener Contract likely to last through '93

December 07, 1992|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Staff Writer

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Baseball management certainly has a sense of timing. The 28 major-league owners have chosen Pearl Harbor Day to decide whether they will signal a labor confrontation with the Major League Players Association.

They will meet at the winter meetings today to decide whether to reopen collective bargaining with the players. If they do, there is the clear and present danger that the sport will be shut down for some or all of the 1993 season.

That seems unlikely, but the union has been preparing for the worst and the owners have set the stage for another labor showdown. They removed commissioner Fay Vincent -- at least partly because he refused to agree to limit his power with respect to labor matters -- and they have put seasoned management warrior Richard Ravitch in control of the Player Relations Committee.

The reopener deadline is Dec. 11, but the 11-member Executive Council that has taken control of the game wants to decide today. The owners also are expected to discuss possible disciplinary action against Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott and certainly will discuss the San Francisco Giants/Barry Bonds fiasco.

It should be a very full day. The Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton are expected to be here tonight for a downtown rally to protest alleged racial and ethnic slurs attributed to Schott. The Executive Council can make the controversy go away by exercising its "best interests of baseball" powers with a stiff fine or lengthy suspension, but no immediate decision is expected.

"I think it's unlikely that any action will take place during these meetings," deputy commissioner Steve Greenberg said yesterday. "I don't think the committee has completed its work yet."

The Schott controversy, the labor situation and the pending Giants sale may appear to be unrelated, but they could influence the decision on whether to reopen collective bargaining. The owners need to take a unified stance if they are to have any hope of winning significant concessions from the players union. The Marge Mess, as it has been dubbed, could be divisive. The presence of six new owners (the two expansion clubs and the recent ownership changes in Houston, Detroit, Seattle and San Francisco) has to have an effect.

In combination, those factors and several other important considerations point to a vote for the status quo. Major League Baseball still has a year remaining on a lucrative television contract and still has real fears that the next one won't be nearly so lucrative. The game appears to be getting a handle on salaries -- despite the $43 million contract agreed to by Bonds over the weekend. The long-term benefits of a successful lockout might be significant, but they appear to be outweighed by the short-term interests of a significant segment of ownership.

Owners still hope to convince the players union to accept some form of salary cap, but they might be able to deal with it under more stable conditions when the Basic Agreement expires on its own next year. By that time, a new television contract should be in place and the owners will have a better handle on the financial problems they might face in the future.

That extra information also could provide more room for compromise with the union, which has a history of responding better to negotiation than to confrontation.

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