TAMPA, FLA — TAMPA, Fla. -- The long-awaited collective bargaining negotiations between baseball ownership and the Major League Players Association got under way last night, but the three-hour meeting was only a minor first step toward a new labor agreement.
Ownership negotiator Richard Ravitch met with union officials and a group of about 70 players to present a general outline of management's tentative revenue sharing arrangement and the salary cap that the owners hope will accompany it.
The players left disappointed that there was no specific proposal, but encouraged that Ravitch promised to share all of the financial data that was used to formulate the revenue-sharing agreement hammered out among the owners in January.
"I thought it was a good opening session," said Ravitch. "We explained to the players what our objectives are in the collective bargaining process. They asked some tough questions and there were expressions of concern why we feel we need to change the present system.
"Our objective is to produce a system to provide ownership with cost certainty, the right to bargain for the aggregate cost of playing baseball and to achieve a system to enhance competitive balance."
The biggest expression of concern from union director Donald Fehr and the players, however, was over the lack of specifics in the presentation. They came from spring training camps all over Florida to hear what the owners had to offer, and no offer was forthcoming.
"What we had today -- though differing in some respects -- was a basic indication from Dick and a reiteration of what he said a year ago and what others said four years ago and eight years ago," Fehr said. "They indicated that what they want is cost certainty and everything else is flexible. We'll take them at their word and assume that includes the specifics of revenue sharing."
Ravitch said that the general nature of the presentation was no accident. He is trying to avoid making the same mistakes that led to protracted negotiations in the past.
"It was intentionally not detailed," he said. "In the past, when baseballsubmitted a detailed proposal, we were told that baseball was being rigid, arbitrary and capricious."
The owners have tried hard to convince the players that the game is teetering on the brink of financial insolvency and that the only solution is a new player compensation system that links revenue-sharing with a cap on each club's payroll. The players remain resistant to the idea of anything that might restrict the free market, which leaves room to wonder if there is any hope of avoiding a work stoppage.
The union has the option of setting a late-season strike deadline to try and force an agreement, but that doesn't figure to be an issue until the sides' positions are more clear.
"We were hoping that they would come in with something we could work with," said Orioles player representative Mike Mussina. "Instead, we got generalities. It sounded like one of my economics classes in college."
Fehr did not talk tough last night, choosing to call meeting a necessary step in "an involved and extended" collective bargaining process.
"The staffs will get together very soon and look at the data that they went through to see if we come to the same answers that they came up with," he said. "That's why it's too bad it has taken this long [to start negotiations]."
It has been 15 months since the owners voted to reopen the collective bargaining negotiations, and it appears that it could be another six months before it is clear what direction they may take.
The next formal meeting is scheduled for Mar. 30 in Phoenix but that figures to be largely a re-run of last night's meeting for the players training in Arizona.