LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Major League Baseball's 28 owners voted yesterday to reopen their collective bargaining agreement with the Major League Players Association, a decision that could move the sport closer to a major labor showdown.
The owners voted 15-13 to resume bargaining with the players union one year before the 1990 Basic Agreement was scheduled to expire -- creating the possibility of a lockout that could endanger the 1993 season -- but ownership negotiator Richard Ravitch said that the owners have no plans to take such action.
"I want you to know that there was not a single owner in the room who advocated a lockout or that a decision be made about a lockout at this time," said Mr. Ravitch, who conducted the vote at an owners meeting at the baseball winter meetings.
The narrow margin of the secret ballot appears to be an indication that there is not widespread support for a hard-line strategy. And, in an apparent effort to reduce labor tension, the ,, owners voted to amend their bylaws to require a three-fourths majority vote to authorize a lockout.
"It should not surprise anyone that there was not a unanimous point of view," Mr. Ravitch said. "I think that everyone shares some common concerns about the future. No one wants to see the disruption of baseball."
Nevertheless, the decision has enormous implications, especially for the Orioles. The club is looking ahead to another season of sellouts at Camden Yards and is scheduled to play host to the 1993 All-Star Game in July.
Orioles president Larry Lucchino attended the meeting and cast his vote with the minority, but he also tried to quell rising concern that the owners were laying the groundwork for a lockout.
"This is simply a decision to reopen the Basic Agreement of 1990 and begin negotiations at an early date, Jan. 10, 1993," he said. "This is not, I repeat not, a decision to lock out at any point in the 1993 season. Beyond that, I would refer any questions to the authorized representative of the Player Relations Committee."
The PRC is the negotiating arm of Major League Baseball. Mr. Ravitch, a career negotiator who is best known as a former commissioner of the Metropolitan Transit Authority in New York, was hired last year to head up the committee. He is known as a hard-nosed management point man, but he said yesterday that his reputation as a union buster is undeserved.
"I have been characterized for the past few months by some of you as a union buster," he said. "But no one has bothered to ask me. I have been involved in work stoppages. I do not believe that work stoppages produce better results than other forms of collective bargaining."
The decision to reopen gives the owners the opportunity to address their concerns without affecting the 1994 season. If they had waited until the Basic Agreement's four-year term expired, they would not have had time to institute the changes they want until 1995.
The owners hope to convince the players to substitute a revenue-sharing program for the current system of player compensation, but they don't figure to get the players to accept a salary cap without a fight. Mr. Ravitch kept the tone of his news conference non-confrontational, but he could not guarantee that the owners would not vote for a lockout this spring.
"I won't guarantee anything," he said. "I will guarantee that discussions will begin in good faith with the intention of the PRC to affect changes in the best interests of baseball."
Mr. Ravitch took a conciliatory tone toward the players association, but the collective bargaining relationship between the owners and the players has been far from friendly. There have been seven work stoppages in the past 20 years, including a two-month strike that severely altered the 1981 season.
Most recently, the owners locked the players out of spring training for three weeks at the start of the 1990 season but eventually settled on a contract that did gain them significant concessions.
"I've gotten to know [union director] Don Fehr and his colleagues. I have immense respect for them. I think they are as legitimately concerned about the problems facing baseball as the owners are. I believe that discussions can produce change."
Mr. Fehr accepted that olive branch with apparent trepidation. Ownership representative Chuck O'Connor said essentially the same things in 1990, but the cordial relationship between the two negotiating groups could not prevent a lockout.
"Do I feel there will be a confrontation?" Mr. Fehr said. "Nothing that has happened today has given me any clue about that. History is not with us, but history has sometimes been an incorrect guide, so I don't know what's going to happen."
The union has been preparing for the possibility of a reopener since last spring. It became more likely when the owners sought to limit the influence of Commissioner Fay Vincent in labor matters and seemed inevitable when Mr. Vincent was forced to resign in September.