Mission impossible? Ravitch warns players, owners of financial woes

BASEBALL

March 28, 1993|By PETER SCHMUCK

Richard Ravitch is on a mission. He spent last week in Florida talking to reporters, talking to players and trying to convince the world that baseball ownership is not crying wolf again.

Ravitch, who heads Major League Baseball's Player Relations Committee, has the task of negotiating a collective-bargaining agreement with the players union. And the emphasis is on the word "new." The owners have made it obvious that come next year, they will not start a new season with the old economic problems.

The challenge for Ravitch is threefold. He must devise a drastically new player compensation system. He must convince the owners that it is the only way to address their mutual financial concerns. Then he must sell it to the players. Sounds easy, doesn't it?

Right now, he is making the rounds and trying to make it clear that something has to be done to keep baseball from entering a period of tremendous economic instability.

"I've told them basically that I am very concerned that revenues could go down so significantly in 1994 as to leave baseball without adequate funding to meet all its obligations," Ravitch said.

The union rightly could argue that such claims have been made before, but Ravitch has some startling numbers to back up his argument. Major League Baseball, he says, already has $2 billion in player contract obligations for the future -- a future in which television revenues are expected to decline.

"The owners already have gotten 192 players signed for 1994 for almost $500 million. That's more than baseball's entire payroll in 1989. Already there are 90 players signed for 1995 for a total of $360 million."

Does this mean that the game is headed for bankruptcy? Ravitch won't go quite that far. But he does see the competitive balance of the game tilting dramatically in favor of the large-market teams.

"I know that's been argued before," he said. "People use Pittsburgh [as a counter-argument]. Pittsburgh is a small-market club, but it had the eighth-highest payroll and lost money last year. In 1989, on average, the lowest-revenue club would have spent 60 percent of its gross revenues on player compensation. That same team in 1993 will spend 80 percent of the gross in compensation. There is no way you can pay 80 percent of your gross. The competitive balance for small-market teams is a thing of the past."

Ravitch has conducted joint meetings with union director Don Fehr in hopes of convincing the players that a salary cap and revenue-sharing plan is in their best interests. He feels that the environment may be right for change, but he concedes that the owners may have to get tough to achieve it.

"I honestly believe that Don Fehr understands that I am not fabricating the facts," he said. "It's too early to tell whether the attitude is changing, but I'll tell you this: If the owners are as unified as I believe they will be, it will be a different negotiation this time around."

Fehr isn't sure that anything has changed. He has been involved in baseball's labor/management relationship for nearly two decades, and he isn't ready to trumpet a new age of cooperation. He met with the Orioles players yesterday and prepared them for the worst.

"Their idea of a partnership consists entirely of 'the players should take less money,' " Fehr said. "That's not going to happen. There is so much more money coming in now than there was even four years ago. If they are losing money the way they say they are, you have to ask yourself, what's wrong with them. . . . They want the players to be the responsible ones with a salary cap. It's hard to buy into that."

Collective bargaining probably will not begin in earnest until late summer. Ravitch hopes to have a revenue-sharing plan devised and accepted by ownership by then, but even that may be an uphill battle.

Bo has Bell worried

When the Chicago White Sox decided to exercise their option on Bo Jackson, it left designated hitter George Bell feeling insecure. But general manager Ron Scheuler said last week that Jackson is the one who has to find a place in the everyday lineup.

"Right now, he's not in the lineup," Scheuler said. "He'll have to earn it. Frank Thomas is our first baseman and George Bell is our DH. George seems to think that he's in competition with Bo, but he isn't. George has a role here."

Jackson could fit into the lineup at a number of positions, finding two or three starts a week backing up Bell and veteran outfielders Tim Raines and Ellis Burks. That is, if his comeback from hip-replacement surgery remains on track.

Bo knows that if he can play regularly, he'll be in the lineup.

"I never doubted myself," he said, "but I didn't expect to have the kind of spring I've had . . . and I didn't expect to have the ability to run to first base in 4.3 seconds."

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