Federal mediators may not be able to change the course of the deadlocked baseball negotiations, but they already have succeeded in changing the chemistry of them.
John Calhoun Wells, the national director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, announced yesterday that negotiations will resume next week and that individual owners will be at the bargaining table.
That represents a shift in the bargaining strategy of the owners -- who have conducted all negotiations of their Player Relations Committee through Richard Ravitch. But it does not necessarily mean that they will soften their hard-line bargaining position.
"I do not have any reason to believe that their position has changed," said Donald Fehr, executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association. "It's just a shame we have to wait another week to resume bargaining, but we can't do anything about that."
Representatives of the players and owners will meet with mediators Monday to map out the negotiating schedule, and the next full bargaining session probably will take place on Tuesday or Wednesday. The site has not been determined.
The new management bargaining unit is expected to include a representative group of five owners, which will be announced Monday. The union's bargaining team usually includes significant player representation, but that may be limited to five players under the arrangement proposed by the mediation team.
If the owners were prodded by the mediators into a more active role, that has to be viewed as a minor victory for the players. Fehr has criticized management repeatedly for an internal rule that previously prohibited individual ownership participation.
"I think that has been a pretty clear signal that they don't want to talk to the players directly," Fehr said. "I think it has been pretty clear that they do not have an interest in reaching an agreement."
Ravitch, who has defended ownership's decision to use him as its sole bargaining agent, said yesterday that he welcomed the intervention of the mediators and the arrival of the owners at the bargaining table.
"I've said all along that I never had anything against the owners being at the meetings," he said. "I welcome them. I believe it's a healthy suggestion -- one that will advance the negotiations."
There has been no substantive change in the position of either side since the owners presented their salary cap proposal in late June. The decision by both sides to accept assistance from the FMCS last week raised hope of some movement, but there apparently has been none so far.
"We have not gotten to the substance yet," Ravitch said. "We merely agreed upon the process they suggested. We're going to meet with Don Fehr and the union on Monday and work out the details for the balance of the week."
The negotiations could have resumed a lot earlier if the owners had taken that suggestion when it was delivered last week by New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner. Instead, acting commissioner Bud Selig responded to Steinbrenner's suggestion and other comments from maverick owners with a request that they clear further public comment through the PRC.
The change of heart could be viewed as a softening of the ownership position, or it could be viewed more cynically as $$TC
prelude to a declared impasse. If the owners eventually impose the salary cap unilaterally, their cooperation with federal mediators might help shield them from union charges that they failed to negotiate in good faith.
Fehr obviously wonders. He expressed hope that the negotiations had not reached the stage where "we spend months arguing about the shape of the table and where everybody is going to sit" -- a reference to the Vietnam peace talks in Paris, which were delayed for months by petty logistical disputes.
Wells said yesterday the group of five owners would be representative of the small-, medium- and large-market clubs, but did not announce who would be present. It seems likely that Selig and Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf will be on hand. Boston Red Sox general partner John Harrington probably will represent the large-market clubs.
Orioles owner Peter Angelos will not be invited. The newest of the large-market owners, he has rankled some members of the old guard with his outspokenness, so he said yesterday he did not expect to be included.
"I think that's doubtful," he said. "I have been termed the new kid on the block who doesn't understand what's going on. That's OK. There are certainly a substantial number of capable owners who can make a contribution."
Fehr spent a couple of days this week in Washington, lobbying against baseball's antitrust exemption. He spoke with aides to senators Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and got an assurance from House Judiciary Committee chairman Jack Brooks that the special exemption would again come under scrutiny in September.
"The antitrust exemption is certainly a factor," Fehr said. "Congress ought to do something about it. We applaud that."
The removal of the exemption would give the union new legal weapons to carry forward their fight with management, but it is unclear whether it would have a significant effect on the players' bargaining position. No other sport has such privileged status, yet the NBA and NFL have adopted salary caps.