'Provocative' owners try pre-emptive strike

August 05, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

The baseball labor negotiations sailed into uncharted waters yesterday when Don Fehr called the owners "provocative."

What, is Jerry Reinsdorf going around talking tough in a Speedo bathing suit? Are the owners attempting to distract the players with a Gene Autry fold-out?

George Steinbrenner in the role of un provocateur? Thanks, but no thanks.

Of course, Fehr was referring not to that kind of provocation, but the other kind. You know, the get-real-mad kind.

The players were peeved that the owners withheld a $7.8 million payment to the players' pension fund. Forget this crazy salary cap thing, the players said, they're messing with our families now. (We could all relate, of course, if only we also belonged to unions in which the minimum salary was $109,000.)

In any case, the players considered themselves sufficiently provoked to call an emergency meeting yesterday and mull setting a strike date earlier than planned, perhaps as early as today. After kicking the idea around, they decided to stick to Aug. 12, their original date.

What were we supposed to do, applaud?

What difference does it make when the players go out? The timing is irrelevant. Doesn't matter if it happens in April, September, the first week in August or the second week in August. A season barbecued by a strike is a season barbecued by a strike.

The players magnanimously deciding to stick to their original strike date is like telling a man sentenced to die that the executioner got stuck in traffic.

The only thing that matters to the rest of us, to anyone other than the players and owners and their egocentric negotiators, is if the players go out. And it sure looks like they're going.

If there was any doubt before, there is no doubt now that the owners have jimmied with the players' pension fund. Do not confuse this with anything other than what it is: an act of war.

(Personally, I was rooting for the players to call for the strike yesterday. Why not just get on with it? A yea vote would have spared us a week of insufferable whining and jousting in the papers. And it would have spared our fair burg a week of falling-Bird watching, no minor thing.)

Pocketing the players' pension money was a cheap but legal shot designed to demonstrate to the players that the owners intend not to roll over and go fetch the bone in the end, as they have in every other negotiation with the union.

If and when there is a settlement, the owners will pay back the money. Both sides know it. The lost money was not the provocation. Unless baseball ceases to exist, the lost money will found.

The principle was the provocation. The symbolism. The owners played hardball for a change. They asked the players to play the All-Star Game because the struggling Pirates and the owners' new Baseball Network venture needed the boost, then refused to hand over the pension money from the All-Star revenues.

It was a weasel move, but a legal weasel move; with the current collective bargaining agreement expired, the owners were not obligated to make the payment. It amounted to a free way for them to show the players that they are not just talking tough this time, that they actually intend to fight the fight and hold onto a shred of their dignity. If they have any dignity left.

No one should believe them until it actually happens, of course. The owners have buckled every time before, and there are reasons to expect them to buckle again before watching the players take a long walk. They have promised revenues to Baseball Network advertisers. Not delivering is hardly the way to give their critical new venture credibility.

But if they are indeed backed into such a corner, why are they being so, you know, provocative? Could it be that they are indeed serious this time, willing to take on a long, costly strike to keep from getting clobbered again?

Let's hope not. The owners are the bad guys in this argument. They cry poverty, but refuse to open their books. They complain about player salaries, then agree to bigger and bigger contracts every year. They can't control themselves, so they ask the

players to help them by agreeing to cap salaries. Would you?

Once again, here is one idea for a compromise: Scotch the cap and scotch salary arbitration, which the owners can't stand. In return for giving up arbitration, give the players free agency after three or four years instead of six. The only thing wrong with the idea is that it makes too much sense. Which means it'll never fly.

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