NEW YORK -- It didn't seem possible just a few days ago, but the warring parties in baseball's acrimonious labor dispute actually moved further apart this week.
The situation has became so critical, in fact, that there is a possibility that the players will move up their strike date, perhaps walking off the field in the next few days.
The point of contention: $7.8 million in revenue from the 1994 All-Star Game that the owners have decided to keep rather than make their customary August payment to the Major League Baseball Players Association pension and benefits fund.
"It just amazes me the lengths they will go to insult us," said union director Donald Fehr. "They asked us not to strike before the All-Star Game because the Pirates franchise was struggling and it would hurt Pittsburgh. So we play the game and then they tell us we're suckers and they're going to keep the money."
Ownership negotiator Richard Ravitch defended the decision, pointing out that there is no collective bargaining agreement in effect and the owners are not obligated to make the payment until it is required by a new labor contract.
"We had a four-year agreement that said very specifically what the owners shall contribute to the fund," Ravitch said. "It said the owners are under no obligation to make any contributions beyond the terms of the agreement."
Fehr dismissed that argument and indicated the union would file suit to recover the money if necessary, but he also hinted at a more drastic punitive measure. The players, he said, are so indignant over this latest slight that an earlier strike date is "conceivable."
"This is a cheap shot, a blind one and it was intended that way," Fehr said after yesterday's two-hour collective bargaining session was consumed by the pension fund issue. "Never in the history of this contentious relationship . . . at no time have they ever done anything like this."
Several players attended the meeting, including Atlanta Braves player representative Tom Glavine, who also left room for speculation that the players might decide to shut down the game in the next few days.
"These are all things that we're going to have to sit down and talk about," said Glavine, who is in New York for the series between the Braves and Mets. "It certainly doesn't go a long way toward showing good faith when they do something like that."
If nothing else, it was a public relations gamble by the owners, who have tried to portray the players as greedy and unwilling to recognize the financial problems that threaten the future of the sport. The decision to withhold pension and health benefits funding may turn out to be legally defensible, but it left the appearance that the owners are stirring for an unprecedented fight.
"We thought at first that it was a breakthrough," Fehr said sarcastically. "We thought they had seen the light on revenue sharing and were giving the money to Pittsburgh or San Francisco or some other club that needed it, but that obviously is not the case.
"They are trying to use the players' pension money to fund them during the strike."
What happens next? There is a work group meeting scheduled for tomorrow to discuss technical matters. The next full-scale bargaining session has not yet been scheduled, but it probably will take place Friday in New York.
In the meantime, union officials are expected to brief all of the player representatives on the pension fund dispute, and may conduct another conference call to discuss possible retaliatory measures.
"All I can tell you is that the players I've talked to are really upset," Fehr said. "I don't know if [an earlier strike date] will be seriously considered or not."
Though no complete poll has been taken, the prevailing sentiment among the Braves and Mets players at Shea Stadium last night appeared to favor an immediate walkout. But union officials are considering a range of options, including moving the strike date back to late September so that the players can collect their entire 1994 salaries before walking out on ownership's $140 million postseason payday.
The original Aug. 12 deadline still seems most likely, but the players could use ownership's pension nonpayment to justify a postseason strike, since Ravitch's argument for withholding the August payment also would apply to the players' traditional share of postseason revenues.
"It's obvious they want us to strike," said Braves rookie Tony Tarasco, one of the 12 players to attend yesterday's bargaining session. "The whole thing is a joke. They are pushing us into this."
The pension dispute -- and the tenor of yesterday's bargaining session -- appear to be another sign of management's resolve to snap a string of collective bargaining losses and force a salary cap on the union.
Ravitch did not apologize for the hard line he had taken with the union. During his half of a joint news conference at Manhattan's Intercontinental Hotel, he all but challenged the players to a fight over the money.
"The simple fact is, people have to accept the burdens and benefits of collective bargaining," he said. "If the players had wanted to gear payment of pension funds to the All-Star Game as they have suggested, the agreement would have said that.
"They didn't do that. They didn't bargain for it. They aren't entitled to it."
This latest controversy may finally have transformed this labor dispute into a personal test of wills between Ravitch and Fehr. Both have tried hard to avoid the perception of any ego conflict, but Fehr did not hide his anger yesterday.
"Dick Ravitch has a problem," Fehr said. "He thinks he is different and he is indistinguishable from anyone else who has come before him."