Players hold anger, Aug. 12 date

August 05, 1994|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- The Major League Baseball Players Association ended rumors of an immediate strike yesterday, announcing that it would hold to the original Aug. 12 strike deadline that the union set last week.

The speculation had centered on union outrage over management's decision to withhold payment of $7.8 million in All-Star Game revenues that traditionally go into the players' pension and benefits fund. But union director Don Fehr and the union's executive board chose to take the public relations high ground and keep the season alive for at least one more week.

The union held a noon conference call to discuss the pension situation, and all but one of the 28 teams were represented. Many of the player representatives reportedly favored an immediate walkout, but all eventually agreed that it would be wiser to stay on the original course.

"Our basic feeling is that the action the owners have taken is highly irresponsible and very provocative -- perhaps intentionally Fehr said. "In any event, it flies in the face of any reason to believe there's a desire on behalf of management to reach a settlement.

"There was considerable sentiment to move the strike to an earlier date, perhaps as early as tomorrow. The board came to the conclusion that just because the owners are behaving in a provocative and irresponsible manner doesn't mean that the players have to."

There probably was a more pragmatic reason for the decision to stay at work for one more week. The players had to weigh the value of a symbolic gesture against the week's pay they would lose by going out earlier than scheduled. Though that might be a small price to pay to accelerate a settlement, the confrontational stance of the owners may have convinced them that it would not have any effect.

Ownership negotiator Richard Ravitch continued yesterday to insist that the move was legal and appropriate because the agreement to share All-Star Game and postseason revenues had expired. The players countered that they played the All-Star Game in good faith at the owners' request to help the Pittsburgh Pirates organization and get no compensation for it other than the pension payment.

"When you go on strike, it's not traditional to continue to receive benefits," Ravitch said. "If the players choose to remain on strike until next year, there will not be money to support and fund their health insurance. But how many of you have zero-deductible health insurance that would stay in effect if you went on strike?"

The pension dispute probably would not be a major issue if the negotiations were progressing, but the deep ideological divide between the players and owners has left little room for anything but a war of words and a test of will.

"If nothing else, I think this shows everyone who is pushing this fight," Fehr said.

Fehr also said there would be no settlement that does not include payment of the 1994 All-Star revenues, but the importance of the issue may be far more symbolic than anything else.

Everyone -- including Ravitch -- agrees that the money eventually will be dispensed when a new collective bargaining agreement goes into effect.

When that might happen remains very much in doubt. The rhetoric on both sides leaves little room for compromise, and the Aug. 12 strike date leaves little room to get anything done in time to keep the season from being interrupted.

The only hopeful sign came after yesterday's news conferences, when Fehr and Ravitch got back together for a short negotiating session at the MLBPL headquarters.

Union and management officials met for a working meeting late yesterday afternoon in which they reviewed a set of revenue-sharing suggestions presented by the players. That meeting will resume early today, but no full-scale bargaining session is expected to take place until Monday at the earliest.

Fehr said last night that he had no feel for how the owners would respond to the ideas presented, but the mood was far less confrontational after the meeting. Ownership representatives consider the small-group meetings more productive than the sessions that include large groups of players, but Fehr insists on having union members present for full-scale bargaining sessions.

"The players keep coming back to the same basic question," Fehr said. "Why are the owners doing this, and what do they hope to accomplish?"

The owners keep coming back with the same answer -- what Ravitch calls "cost certainty." They are insisting on a player compensation system that is tied directly to a percentage of baseball's future revenues. Though a salary cap may not be the only way to accomplish that, it is the only method the owners have proposed.

"The game of baseball needs to have a new player compensation system," Ravitch said.

"We're not asking the players to make less. We just want the players' salaries tied to the revenue that the game generates.

"I hope very much between now and Aug. 12 that the players will indicate some willingness to respond to that concept."

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