Hard-liners rule ownership roost

August 31, 1994|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff Writer

How did it happen? How did a self-interested group of small- and medium-market teams persuade baseball's heaviest financial hitters to go along with a program that has left the large-market teams essentially powerless to alter the course of the deadlocked labor negotiations?

That has become a relevant question as the 20-day-old baseball strike moves closer to the point where the regular season -- as well as the playoffs and World Series -- cannot be saved.

The large-market clubs may be getting more and more uncomfortable with the prospect of a season-killing strike and the legal mess that is sure to follow, but an internal rule that requires a 75 percent majority to approve any settlement has made it possible for a group of as few as eight teams to hold the rest of the major leagues hostage.

That rule change was approved unanimously at an ownership meeting in Cincinnati on June 8, but there are at least a few clubs that are wondering if they made a mistake by allowing ownership's hard-line bargaining stance to be set in stone, and the Major League Baseball Players Association is wondering if any ownership constituency will be able to muster enough votes to make a deal.

"What if we're in the worst-case situation?" union director Donald Fehr said last week. "What if they can't get 21 votes for anything the players will accept?"

Somehow, the owners got the 21 votes necessary to create that situation and got everyone else to rubber stamp the 75 percent rule to show solidarity. Even New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, Los Angeles Dodgers owner Peter O'Malley and Orioles owner Peter Angelos gave their approval, though the rule now appears to be costing them millions and leaving them with little to say about it.

Perhaps that is no accident, since the large-market clubs figured to be the first to lose their enthusiasm for the hard-line bargaining approach that has pushed the labor dispute to within days of wiping out the remainder of the season.

Angelos has expressed his displeasure with the way the negotiations are being handled. Steinbrenner, Colorado Rockies

owner Jerry McMorris and Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott also have made statements contrary to the party line. But the small- and medium-market owners who are pushing ownership's aggressive agenda obviously saw that coming.

In the past, ownership unity has been the exception instead of the rule, so the owners made a rule that forces them to be !B unified. Call it the 75 percent solution. The large-market owners couldn't break ranks even if they wanted to -- and the rising level of discomfort may eventually force them to make tremendous monetary concessions to the poorer clubs to settle the strike.

Did the large-market clubs get outflanked during the series of meetings in which management devised the revenue-sharing and salary cap programs? Acting commissioner Bud Selig, who played a major role in the development of the ownership strategy, says no.

"There was almost no controversy," Selig said. "It passed unanimously . . . almost without a whimper. Everyone was convinced that what we are doing had merit."

Sentiment on the super-majority rule no longer is quite so unanimous. Individual owners are hesitant to criticize it publicly, but at least a couple have indicated that they made the vote unanimous only because they had been convinced by fellow owners that there were enough votes to put the 21-vote rule in effect.

"The rule represents control by the minority over the majority," said Angelos, who is not afraid to second-guess even his own club's participation in the vote. "As such, it is objectionable and I think it was a mistake."

It is common in advance of collective bargaining for each side to make a show of unity, but it was even more important to the owners in the wake of several previous labor negotiations in which they divided themselves and were conquered.

The small- and medium-market alliance apparently was able to convince the large-market Toronto Blue Jays and Boston Red Sox to sign on, and the two big-revenue expansion clubs had no reason to resist because they were given temporary exemptions from the provisions of the revenue-sharing program that will go into effect with the salary cap.

Now, the 21-vote rule has the power to hold baseball prisoner until the winter, when an impasse almost certainly will be declared and management will implement the salary cap proposal unilaterally. Union officials suspect that was the whole idea, and wonder if any of the constituencies within the ownership ranks is large enough to make a deal.

O'Malley, who has as much to lose as anyone, said yesterday that he doesn't think that will be the case.

"I think when we get close to a deal," O'Malley said, "an overwhelming number of clubs will support it. It's unlikely that the voting requirement will be an impediment."

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