Owners split on commissioner PRC head, his allies want accord with players first

February 17, 1993|By Ross Newhan | Ross Newhan,Los Angeles Times

Inching toward the selection of a commissioner and the restructuring of that office, major-league baseball owners will try to iron out persistent wrinkles in the process during another special meeting in Phoenix today.

Although it probably will not come to this, the status of Richard Ravitch as president of the owners' Player Relations Committee and point man in labor negotiations with the players' union could be in jeopardy.

Ravitch and a small group of owners continue to oppose the hiring of a commissioner until labor negotiations are completed. They are concerned that a new commissioner, no matter how the office is restructured, will become a middle man in those negotiations, possibly derailing a potential revenue-sharing system with the players.

"The restructuring report was done a month ago but put on ice [because of the opposition to hiring a commissioner at this time]," a baseball official said. "It's a total traffic jam at this point.

"I mean, Bud keeps talking about having a new commissioner by Opening Day, but I still think it won't happen until late in '93 or early '94."

Bud Selig, president of the Milwaukee Brewers and chairman of baseball's governing executive council, said the other day that there are differing opinions on all issues, but that he is confident a new commissioner will be in office by the end of May, possibly sooner. He reiterated that the restructuring report is expected to be presented at an owners' meeting March 3-4 in Phoenix, and that the search committee under chairman Bill Bartholomay of the Atlanta Braves is aggressively pursuing a commissioner.

Nevertheless, some owners continue to lobby for a delay, believing that Ravitch should be on any list of candidates and fearing that he might step down if he felt his negotiating autonomy was being compromised. These same owners, among others, believe their platform was compromised by former commissioner Fay Vincent during the last negotiations.

Ravitch subsequently was hired at a salary larger than Vincent's and was a forceful supporter of the attempt to have Vincent give up his powers in the labor area. Vincent refused, strengthening the resolve of a majority group of owners to force him out of office.

Ravitch, reached in New York before leaving for Phoenix, said he is in an awkward position on the commissioner issue but has not made any threats nor taken a firm stance.

"I've told the clubs that if they want me to continue taking the responsibility for labor negotiations I'll be happy to do it," he said. "If they want to bring in a new commissioner with the responsibility for all that stuff, they are entitled to do that."

He added that the owners continue to face many important issues, "but until they have a new economic system they can't focus on the others."

He also said -- with obvious implications regarding his role -- that the sequence of their decisions and a recognition of the economic gravity could be critical. He said again that baseball faces "catastrophic" consequences unless a new system is implemented in 1994, when he expects the national TV contract to be considerably less than the current package.

Peter O'Malley, president of the Los Angeles Dodgers and a strong supporter of Ravitch, said Ravitch has "never hinted" to him that he might bow out if a commissioner is hired immediately.

"I think he enjoys widespread support and is committed to helping us through this negotiation," O'Malley said, adding that he does not regard the situation as combustible, "because to say that would be to say that having both Dick and a new commissioner would be incompatible, and I don't think that's the case. I also don't see how a new commissioner could look at our economic situation and view it differently [than Ravitch does]."

O'Malley said he continues to favor the hiring of a "strong, independent, outside commissioner." He said he hopes it happens soon, "and I think most owners agree with me on that."

The threat of Congress' revoking baseball's antitrust exemption makes a longer delay unlikely.

Vincent resigned Sept. 7. Ultimately, the commissioner's powers are expected to remain intact or be strengthened by the Congressional threat. O'Malley, a member of the restructuring committee, denied that its report has been completed for a month. He said it is in the draft stage and should be presented at the March meeting.

Ravitch is expected to make a new appeal at today's meeting to have the owners share more of their local TV and radio income as a method of balancing the revenue inequity between big and small markets and demonstrating to the players' union that the owners are determined to create an improved partnership among themselves, as well as with the players.

O'Malley, whose big-market Dodgers have one of baseball's biggest local TV and radio contracts, said he favors sharing it.

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