Senate leaves antitrust exemption intact

June 24, 1994|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- The Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday turned back a scaled-down version of the proposed bill to withdraw Major League Baseball's antitrust exemption, apparently increasing the likelihood of a late-season players strike.

The committee voted 10-7 against sending the bill to the Senate floor, even after its sponsor -- Ohio Democrat Howard Metzenbaum -- reduced the scope of the measure drastically in an attempt to bring it to a full vote.

The amended version would have removed antitrust protection only as it related to baseball's troubled labor situation, giving the players union the ability to sue the owners in federal court rather than interrupt the season with a strike.

"I've fought hard for a good many years to lift baseball's antitrust exemption," Metzenbaum said in his opening remarks, "but frankly, I don't have the votes. The bill now doesn't touch television. It will not touch minor-league franchises or relocation. I gave them up because we should do everything we can to avoid a baseball strike."

Even so, he couldn't enlist enough support to move the bill along, perhaps because some senators were uncomfortable siding with anyone in a fractious labor dispute that doesn't engender a great deal of public sympathy on either side.

"If we pass out this amendment and there is a strike, the owners are going to say we caused it," committee chairman Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. said before the vote. "If we don't pass it and there is a strike, the players are going to say we caused it. So you can write your headlines now."

If the bill had passed committee, it would have been an important victory for the players union that might have tipped the balance of the current labor negotiations. Instead, the senators left the issue open for further review, a temporary victory for the owners that will have little effect on the current state of collective bargaining.

jTC "I'm very happy," said acting commissioner Bud Selig, "and I'm ++ happy for a lot of reasons. Now, we can go back to work and get this thing [the labor situation] solved."

Major League Baseball Players Association director Donald Fehr was not available for comment, but he said earlier this week that the union favored Senate action on the antitrust exemption because it might help forestall a strike.

Biden, a Democrat from Delaware who has been generally supportive of Metzenbaum's crusade against baseball's antitrust arrangement, voted against the bill and gave voice to the public ambivalence about the baseball labor dispute.

"I have found the owners not particularly concerned with anything except self-interest," he said. "I think the players are right up there with them."

It seems unlikely that Congress will revisit the antitrust issue again during this session, but that doesn't mean that the assault on Major League Baseball's exemption is over. The protection afforded baseball has been reviewed on several occasions since it was granted 72 years ago, and the political climate seems to be right for some kind of reform.

"There is keen resentment that I have never experienced relative to any other type of industry," Biden said, "such a sense of undefined resentment on the floor toward the baseball owners and baseball players."

In a sense, the ball has been thrown back onto the field. The owners remain adamant in their desire to impose a revenue-based salary cap. The players seem just as committed to resisting it, even if it means going on strike late this season.

Fehr is expected to approach the owners soon with an alternative to the salary cap proposal, but it appears that both sides are too entrenched in their latest dispute to end without a work stoppage.

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