It was 13 months ago that Major League Baseball owners voted to reopen the collective bargaining agreement with the players and pursue a dramatic change in the economic structure of the sport.
If all goes well, they might get started today.
The 28 owners will convene at the Rosemont Hyatt Regency Hotel outside Chicago today in the hope of constructing a revenue-sharing program that will meet the disparate interests of the small-, medium- and large-market teams. If they succeed, substantive negotiations could begin soon on a new labor agreement with the Major League Baseball Players Association.
Of course, the process was supposed to be much further along. The owners met in Kohler, Wis., late last season for the same purpose, but that lengthy meeting succeeded only in polarizing the small- and large-market teams. This time, there are indications an agreement will be reached, though the 18-team small-market faction will need to pick up three votes to get the 75 percent majority required to pass a revenue-sharing plan.
One National League official said last week that the negotiations were at the "1-yard line," and Players Relations Committee president Richard Ravitch appears to be ready to begin labor negotiations next week. He has a meeting with union officials scheduled for Monday in New York, though it primarily will be to discuss realignment and a possible new playoff format. Still, Ravitch was guarded in his optimism.
"I've been optimistic before and disappointed," Ravitch said yesterday. "I just think the alternatives are so disastrous that you have to be optimistic that the clubs will recognize the need to compromise."
Los Angeles Dodgers president Peter O'Malley, who owns one of the richest franchises in professional sports, said earlier this week that the large-market clubs are willing to share more local revenue with the small-market teams, but he isn't sure if what they are offering will be enough to reach an agreement.
"The major-market clubs are willing to double the amount of money they now share, which is a pretty good sign," O'Malley told the Los Angeles Times. "However, if the small-market clubs want it tripled, we may not get there."
The players union can only wait for the owners to sort out the revenue-sharing issue before real negotiations can begin on a new labor agreement.
"I think they will come out of there with some form of watered-down revenue sharing," said Mark Belanger, special assistant to union chief Donald Fehr. "If Ravitch gets them to agree on revenue sharing, they're going to use that as a basis for coming to us with a salary cap."
The union has long insisted that the owners get their financial house in order before asking the players to make any economic concessions, butthat doesn't necessarily mean that the players will be receptive to the idea of a salary cap.
Belanger said yesterday that there has been no understanding between the union and management that revenue sharing would automatically lead to a salary cap.
"Absolutely not," he said. "If they think they are linked, I think they might be comparing apples and pears."
Nevertheless, the owners seem determined to restructure the player compensation system, which they view as a runaway train that soon will derail the financial stability of the sport. They hope to get a handle on the salary spiral that has been driven skyward by free agency and salary arbitration.
Early on, Ravitch convinced them that any successful attempt to limit payrolls would have to be linked to revenue sharing, but it has taken him more than a year to get them to rally around any specific proposal. The last revenue-sharing meeting turned into a battle of wills between the small- and large-market factions that was mediated by acting commissioner Bud Selig, Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, Texas Rangers owner George Bush Jr., and ex-Orioles president Larry Lucchino.
Lucchino, who since has resigned that position with the Orioles, still acts as a consultant to managing general partner Peter Angelos and is in Chicago for the meetings.
"He's here with me and he's acting in conjunction with me in support of the Orioles' position," Angelos said from Chicago. "He remains on our board of directors and he is working here in the interest of the Orioles."
Selig, who owns the struggling Milwaukee Brewers franchise, hasbeen the champion of a group of small-market teams that thinks it is impossible to compete for personnel with clubs that receive far larger revenues from local broadcasting. Teams share evenly in national television and radio revenue, but the difference in local income between small- and large-market clubs is tremendous.
For instance, the Yankees receive an estimated $47 million per year from their cable and broadcast television outlets and their -- radio network, but the Minnesota Twins and Cleveland Indians get only $4.5 million a year each from their broadcasting deals.