Back to the table: Tone softens, but hard line remains

August 25, 1994|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- The resumption of collective bargaining in the 13-day baseball strike brought together individual players and owners for the first time, but that did not lead to any significant change in the position of either side.

If there was any progress, it did not come so much at the bargaining table as in the cordial dialogue during the nearly seven hours of meetings yesterday at New York's Intercontinental Hotel.

The good news is that both sides seem to understand each other. The bad news is that there was no misunderstanding in the first place. The 12 owners expressed their desire for a percentage limit on labor costs, and the players made it clear again that a salary cap by any name remains unacceptable.

"On the ownership side, there were emotional, heartfelt expressions that there are concerns that need to be addressed," Toronto Blue Jays veteran Paul Molitor said. "On the players' side, it was, 'Yes, we understand there are some teams that are being squeezed, but the proposal is not what we think will solve the problem.'

"The players are being asked to solve what problems they [the owners] have instead of the owners' finding ways to do it themselves. We were adamant about maintaining free agency," Molitor said.

"If a cap is on the table, there won't be any baseball."

The owners have not backed away from the cap, but they continue to hint that there might be another way to get what they want.

Boston Red Sox CEO John Harrington said after the meeting that management has studied alternatives such as a salary scale and would welcome a dialogue with the players on any system that would allow the owners to project the actual cost of labor.

Major League Baseball Players Association director Donald Fehr responded to that notion on Monday, saying in essence that a rose by any other name still would smell like a salary cap.

"This is shaping up as if it is going to be a very long process," Fehr said. "There are no indications that the owners are interested in bringing this to a conclusion in a hurry."

The owners' salary cap proposal specifically was not discussed during yesterday's meeting, which was moderated by a six-person team from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, but the owners and players agreed to resume discussions early today.

"We did not really get to the issue of cost," management bargaining chief Richard Ravitch said. "I hope that we devote tomorrow morning to that."

Fehr took advantage of the large post-bargaining news conference to talk about cost, releasing a financial report that was commissioned by the union and delivered to the owners earlier this week. The report, prepared by Stanford economist Roger Noll, disputes management's notion that baseball is in poor financial health and charges that the owners have underreported their revenues.

"His conclusion is that the industry is -- overall -- healthy, and more so than in the 1980s when Professor Noll last analyzed the industry," Fehr said. "He also concludes that the owner's contention that 19 clubs are losing money is not worthy of serious consideration."

Although the owners have long since abandoned hope of convincing the players of their financial distress, Ravitch dismissed the report as biased. "I know of Mr. Noll," Ravitch said. "He is an economist who has represented sports unions and is a [labor] advocate. He is a paid consultant of the union. In the NBA case, he argued that a salary cap was anti-competitive, and the judge ruled to the contrary."

Ravitch has tried to distance himself from earlier management attempts to justify a salary cap on economic or competitive grounds, but he disputed the accuracy of the Noll report, particularly in its analysis of player compensation.

"I did note that in the very beginning, Mr. Noll said that there has not been any significant variation in the ratio of player costs to revenue," Ravitch said. "I think everyone knows that's not true. That percentage was 42 percent in 1989 and it is 58 percent in 1994."

If this sounds like the same kind of public bickering that has helped to freeze the negotiations, the tone of yesterday's meeting was far more cordial than earlier bargaining sessions.

"We had a good, long day of discussions," federal mediation chief John Calhoun Wells said. "Today was the first time in this negotiation that the owners have joined the players at the bargaining table. The players and owners had an opportunity to express deeply held views. Both sides made good presentations and listened to each other. Both sides conducted themselves in a very professional manner."

Union officials remained pessimistic about the prospects for a settlement soon, but the moderate language of a few of the owners made some players hopeful that management soon will moderate its hard-line stance.

"I didn't get the feeling from them that they were saying, 'This is the way it's got to be,' " Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Brett Butler said, "and that's an improvement."

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