Salary arbitration: key to settlement?

August 13, 1994|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- What's it going to take?

The first day of the baseball strike passed without any significant change in the bargaining position of either side -- and there may be many more days just like it -- but the labor dispute that has fractured the 1994 season will end someday. When it does, the terms could look something like this:

The players, who currently must wait six years for free agency, would get to enter the free market in half that time but would no longer be entitled to salary arbitration. That trade-off would disadvantage the players, but they would also get a large hike in the minimum major-league salary (from $109,000 to about $175,000) and other peripheral benefits to balance the settlement.

No one has formally proposed such a compromise, but it represents a midpoint that addresses some of the owners' problems while giving the players a less-restricted free-agent market.

The hard part is getting there. The owners have taken such a hard-line position on the salary cap that it would be almost impossible to bring it off without appearing to cave in. The players have taken such a hard-line position against the salary cap, they don't even consider it a legitimate bargaining chip.

The question is whether the owners originally intended for it to be just that. Union officials have made it clear from the start that a salary cap will never fly, so there is room to wonder if the owners are running a bluff to extract a major concession -- the end of salary arbitration.

Colorado Rockies owner Jerry McMorris said on Thursday that the cap should be negotiable. Several other owners criticized the hard-line approach taken by chief negotiator Richard Ravitch. Could that be the prelude to a compromise in which the owners trade their non-negotiable proposal for an end to baseball's arbitration-enhanced salary spiral?

"I've heard that," Orioles owner Peter Angelos said early yesterday. "I don't believe that was the original strategy, but it might be part of a revised approach. I would have no quarrel with that. That might be an approach that appeals to both sides."

There appear to be cracks in the resolve of the large-market owners, but that is not a major surprise. Angelos, McMorris and George Steinbrenner will be three of the biggest losers if the strike wipes out the rest of the season, so their discomfort level is higher than that of the others.

Angelos made his latest comments before acting commissioner Bud Selig moved to quell internal dissent with a gag order that restricts the public statements of owners.

Ravitch was saying publicly that comments of the renegade owners would have no effect on the owners' bargaining position, but he did not deny that they could alter the chemistry of negotiations. Perhaps that is why Selig was quick to threaten the disgruntled large-market owners with fines for further public criticism.

"I hope it [the criticism] does not encourage the players to think the owners are going to amend their collective bargaining objective," Ravitch said. "My only concern is that the players could get a wrong impression of that."

Union officials privately wonder if the owners really thought they could convince the players to put a cap on salaries. If not, then they know there must be some other agenda, so the union is not likely to ascribe much value to the cap proposal in the trade-off that is certain to come.

Meanwhile, they will take the owners at their word and continue to resist the notion that salary growth must end for the game to return to financial health.

"We can only go on what has happened at the bargaining table," union director Donald Fehr said. "You can't make a deal with a newspaper story."

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