Players bucking salary cap

June 12, 1994|By Mark Hyman | Mark Hyman,Sun Staff Writer

The owners want sweeping changes. The players want nothing to change.

The owners say they want to save baseball from financial ruin and preserve the delicate competitive balance that allows Milwaukee to beat New York and Pittsburgh to clobber Los Angeles.

The players say baseball has never been more balanced, and the owners know it.

The owners say they don't want a fight, but will defend their interests if they have to.

The players say much the same.

Welcome to baseball's labor squabble for 1994. The history of such confrontations shouldn't be of much comfort to fans. Labor-management fights have delayed or interrupted baseball seasons four times in the past 22 years. Most loading docks have better records.

The outlook for this season is not much brighter, as the owners and players prepare to get down to serious bargaining this week. The outcome is impossible to predict, but here are some of the questions and answers you might want to consider while wondering what to do with your Orioles season tickets.

Q: What do the owners want?

A: A major revamping of the system by which player salaries are set.

Under the current rules, players with five years of major-league experience are eligible to become free agents, meaning they can sell their services to any team and at any price, no matter how ridiculous the dollars might seem. This has set off incredible bidding contests among owners and made multi-millionaires of the game's top players. Cal Ripken and Rafael Palmeiro, for example, each signed contracts with the Orioles worth more than $30 million.

In these negotiations, the owners appear determined to get the players to accept revenue participation or a salary cap, which would for the first time tie player salaries to the owners' overall revenues.

Q: Why is a salary cap good for owners?

A: Because it would achieve two things. First, and most important, it would put a lid on the amount of money that owners could pay to players. Strict payroll limits would be set, and owners would not be permitted to exceed them, even to buy the services of a star player who might bring a world championship. The exact dollar limits would depend on the revenues generated baseball and the percentage of that money designated for the players.

The other advantage of a salary cap, as the owners see it, is predictability. Now, team payrolls can rise and fall every year. The system pushed by the owners would eliminate the swings and probably impose the same limits on all 28 clubs.

Q: Why are the players opposed?

A: It's hard to imagine a player compensation system that would work better for the players than the current one, which relies on market forces (e.g., the owners' bank accounts) to set salaries. The average major-league salary has climbed above $1 million.

A salary cap wouldn't necessarily cut salaries, but it could. That's reason enough for the players to be firmly opposed.

Q: What are the specifics of the owners' salary cap proposal?

A: We don't know, and probably won't until Richard Ravitch, the owners' chief negotiator, presents the plan to the players union at a meeting scheduled for Tuesday. It should be a short meeting, followed by a long news conference.

Q: Is there any salary-cap proposal the players could accept?

A: Probably. During labor negotiations four years ago, the owners made a similar proposal, offering the players 38 percent of total revenues. If the owners made an offer too good to be true -- 65 percent? -- it might grab the players' attention.

Q: Why do the owners need a salary cap, anyway?

A: Because many of them are going broke, they say. The number of teams said to be losing money has passed 10 and seems headed for 20. Listen to what one of the smaller-market owners, Milwaukee's Bud Selig, had to say at last week's meetings:

"The fact is we live in a new era, in changing times. The strength of the sport is its ability to succeed in a myriad of places. To take six to eight franchises and move them because they can't produce enough revenues to cover costs, that weakens the sport. The way to cure obvious flaws in an economic system is not to move franchises. If it's the system that is producing the flaws, a helter-skelter movement of franchises is clearly not the answer."

Q: What happens next?

A: Tuesday's meeting. If, as expected, the union summarily rejects the owners' proposal, the two sides will be on a course that could jeopardize the rest of the 1994 season.

The players are said to be seriously considering a strike. A strike authorization vote most likely would be taken at players union meetings either June 16 or July 11, with a walkout to be set for Aug. 1.

Q: Why would the players strike?

A: There are at least two reasons. First, a strike late in the season would maximize the players' leverage. By that stage, they have collected close to three-quarters of their pay. The owners, on the other hand, still would be waiting for a large chunk of TV revenue for the playoffs and World Series.

Second, if the players do complete the season, they run the risk of having a salary cap imposed unilaterally. This could be done if an impasse were declared in the negotiations.

Q: How long would a strike last?

A: It depends on how committed the two sides are to their positions. There are signs that point to a lengthy strike. And there was one particularly ominous development at the owners' meeting -- a change in the voting procedures to require a three-quarters vote to negotiate the end of a strike. That means a militant coalition of just seven owners could block a settlement.

Q: And if there is a strike . . . what are the fans supposed to do?

A: They say Frederick is lovely in August.

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