Both sides talking, but are saying little

August 10, 1994|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- It may be one of the last real opportunities to head off a lengthy strike, but today's collective bargaining session between the Major League Baseball Players Association and the bargaining arm of Major League Baseball is expected to be brief and unproductive.

Ownership negotiator Richard Ravitch repeated his demand yesterday for a dramatic restructuring of the player compensation system. Union director Donald Fehr restated the players' absolute resistance to a revenue-based salary cap.

There doesn't appear to be much to talk about in today's scheduled bargaining session at New York's Intercontinental Hotel, but they will meet under the shadow of the union's strike deadline -- which looms less than 48 hours away.

"My frustration level is high," said Ravitch, "but, yes, there is [reason to meet]. I think no stone should be left unturned to try and make some breakthrough."

It appears that no stone has been left unthrown in this lengthy labor dispute, which dates back 20 months to the December 1992 decision of the owners to reopen the collective bargaining agreement and devise a new method of distributing revenue. It will come to a head after tomorrow's games, when the players walk off the job, perhaps not to return this season.

There has been so little room for compromise on ownership's proposed salary cap that the first two bargaining sessions this week have centered on peripheral matters.

Monday, the players explained their position on a list of so-called "non-economic" issues. Yesterday, the discussions focused on shutdown issues -- the specific rules and conditions that will apply to each side during the work stoppage -- though Major League Baseball already has sent out a directive to the 28 clubs outlining their rights, restrictions and obligations in the event of a strike.

Today, a large contingent of Orioles and New York Yankees players are expected to attend the bargaining session, but they may not like what they are going to hear. Despite rumored cracks in management resolve, the owners appear ready to carry the fight well into the winter.

Ravitch said yesterday that he couldn't envision a scenario in which the strike stretched into next season, but his comments seemed based on the impression that the players do not really have the stomach for a fight.

"It's impossible for me to imagine that this dispute is not going to be resolved by the end of this year," Ravitch said. "Neither side can afford to go into next year with this kind of uncertainty. It hasn't ever dawned on me that it could go that far.

"The players wouldn't know who they are going to play for or where they are going to live. There are only 167 players who are under contract for the 1995 season. There are 600-plus players who don't have contracts for next year. . . . And how are the owners going to promote their teams? I'm afraid there would be so much pain for everybody, it would be silly."

Nevertheless, the players have proved in the past they can survive a lengthy work stoppage, and they may be better prepared financially to do that this year than they were during the 50-day walkout of 1981.

The owners may be basing their hard-line position on the mistaken -- but widely disseminated -- notion that Fehr had to convince the players the owners would fold quickly to garner widespread support for a strike authorization.

If management is banking on the players to crack after they miss a couple of paychecks, the owners may be guilty of the one thing Ravitch insists he'll never do -- underestimate his opponent.

"The classic position of the owners has always been that we don't really represent or speak for the players," Fehr said. "It doesn't help when they have a brand-new negotiator every time."

That sentiment also could extend to the owners themselves, most of whom didn't get into the baseball business until after the marathon strike of 1981.

If the two-paycheck theory is popular among the owners, Fehr let everyone in on a little secret yesterday. The players' strike fund will not even begin disbursing until Sept. 15, the day that the players would miss their second paycheck. Since the players do not get paid during the off-season, the second payment out of the strike fund probably will not come until next April.

"If the owners have been told that, then someone is trying to pressure some owners into a strike when they don't really want one," Fehr said. "If they really think we're going to fold like that, I've got some bridges that I'd like to sell them."

The players have history to prove they are unified. The owners only have Ravitch, who said again yesterday that there has been virtually no internal dissent over his handling of the negotiations.

"Not a single owner has called me to suggest that we make any modification in our offer," he said. "Not even Peter Angelos."

Ravitch made reference to the Orioles owner because he has been the most outspoken of the large-market owners who might be expected to break ranks over the revenue-sharing and salary cap proposals. Angelos has made several suggestions through the media and was openly critical of the ownership decision to withhold $7.8 million in All-Star revenues that traditionally go into the players' pension and benefits funds.

"He is one of the people I represent," Ravitch said, "and he has as much right to an opinion as anyone else. He paid a lot of money for his team and he has obligations to meet. I understand that completely."

Both Fehr and Ravitch have made it clear that any hope for help outside of the collective bargaining process is futile. Neither side is interested in turning the dispute over to a federal mediator, and the government does not have the power to force a settlement on either side.

So the clock keeps ticking and both sides keep talking . . . at least for now.

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