Players' union with the past makes it easy for a grand stand

July 29, 1994|By KEN ROSENTHAL

Tom Bolton recalls his older Boston Red Sox teammates ordering him to attend union meetings during spring training. Leo Gomez recalls Puerto Rican veterans like Juan Beniquez and Jose Cruz educating younger players during winter ball.

The indoctrination starts right away, be it at a hotel in Florida or a stadium in Puerto Rico. The average major-leaguer might be more familiar with Reggie Miller than Marvin Miller, but he knows enough to support his union.

It's part of the clubhouse culture -- the older players fought for you, now you do your part. And, despite what the owners think, everyone from $5.4 million superstars like Cal Ripken to $150,000 rookies like Jeffrey Hammonds will fall in line.

We're not talking about rocket scientists here. We're not talking about left-wing activists. And we're sure not talking about dockworkers and steelworkers -- laborers whose real-life concerns extend beyond the latest in cellular technology.

But like the rest of us, the players can relate to their wallets. And, as much as they like to believe they're the center of the universe, they understand who's responsible for their $1 million average salary.

The union.

"Our group is very unified," said Jim Poole, the Orioles' assistant player representative. "It's as strong a group as I'd ever imagined. I was impressed at the first meeting we had back in June. For sure, nothing has made me waver on that."

And so it is that baseball is headed for its eighth work stoppage in 22 years. The baseball players won't be talked into a salary cap like their NFL counterparts. And they won't be convinced that a cap is necessary, as was the case in the NBA.

They set their Aug. 12 strike date yesterday, and they're not going to budge. With the owners adamant about revolutionizing the game's pay structure, Aug. 12 could be the last day of major-league baseball for a long, long time.

Come next spring, maybe some players will be anxious to get back to work, but even those at the minimum salary earn $109,000. Meanwhile, the union strike fund is believed to be a cool $150 million.

That money would be distributed according to service time, but even after the union subtracts collective-bargaining costs, the average could exceed $150,000 per player -- an amount most of us could find a way to live on.

So much for the argument that the players will be less unified than in previous disputes, because of their wide disparity in salaries. These are the wealthiest union members in history. They got that way by sticking together, not by accident.

The Orioles are a veteran team, so most of the players experienced the '90 lockout, and many the '85 strike. The rookie Hammonds says he has made a point of studying the issues. Poole and the Orioles' main player representative, Mike Mussina, are always available for discussion.

"It's not like we go, 'The union says this,' and everyone says, 'Praise Allah,' " Poole said. "I've been happy to see that there's a lot more interaction than that. They're not necessarily going to argue points being brought up. But they want to know why things are being recommended.

"It's a very interactive union. This team, in particular, when Moose and I come to them with information, they're very attentive. They ask the right questions. That's why the union has stayed strong. Everyone has input, and it's listened to."

So, if you ask an aging veteran like Harold Baines about possibly missing out on one last shot at the World Series, he'll tell you,

"We're striking for a purpose. I've been through the longest one -- 50 days [in 1981]. If I can go through that, I can go through any of them."

And if you ask a fringe player like Jeff Tackett why he stands firmly behind the union, he'll tell you, "It just goes back to before. There were a lot of guys in my situation in other strikes. They hung around, they toughed it out, they went through the ups and downs."

Baines is thinking of the past, the millions he earned under previous labor agreements, and the obligation that entails. Tackett is thinking of the future, the players like himself who might never make the big money, but still deserve their fair share.

No doubt greed is driving both sides. The owners want you to believe that an industry generating record gate receipts is sick. And when the players start talking about long-term security for their families -- it happens every work stoppage -- you just want to strangle them.

In the end, the owners have only themselves to blame. The union never would have grown this powerful if its cause wasn't legitimate. That's what makes the owners so crazy. They created the monster.

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