NEW YORK -- The big trade-off has to come sometime. The baseball strike is in its fourth week, and there may be only one way out of it.
The small- and medium-market owners are not going to give up on their crusade to even the economic playing field with their richer counterparts, and history shows that the players union will not crack. The only way out may be a compromise within the ranks of ownership that addresses the financial disparity between the large- and small-market teams.
There is growing speculation within the industry that the compromise would include a break in the link between revenue sharing and the salary cap proposal that has frozen the negotiations. If the large-market clubs expressed a willingness to share a larger portion of revenues regardless of the structure of the player compensation system, a majority of the 28 teams might be willing to trade off the salary cap for other concessions from the union.
It is a complicated scenario that -- by intent or otherwise -- was made possible by ownership's insistence on a 75 percent majority to approve any settlement. The large-market owners were hesitant to approve the new revenue-sharing plan without getting something in return (the salary cap), but eventually might be willing to trade that for the chance to get back to playing baseball.
One ownership source indicated that a small group of large-market teams even may suggest it, but acting commissioner Bud Selig said last week that such an approach would not solve the serious problems that cloud baseball's financial future.
"That wouldn't be fair to the large-market clubs, and it wouldn't address the problem," Selig said. "You can't solve these problems just by redistributing money."
That may be true, but it might be a more realistic approach than the one currently being employed by the owners. They may get their salary cap after declaring an impasse in November, but that likely would initiate a lengthy legal battle and endanger the 1995 season.
The New York Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers and Orioles were not keen on the idea of funneling millions in profits to their competitors, but the concept may be growing on them now that their revenue streams have dried up.
Selig and ownership negotiator Richard Ravitch have sold most of the owners on the long-term benefits of "cost certainty," but it is not clear how many owners truly believe that they successfully can implement the salary cap. No doubt, many are intoxicated by the prospect of increased profitability, so forming a successful coalition to oppose the current leadership would be difficult.
There has been no organized opposition to the ownership bargaining strategy, but many of the big-market owners are believed to be burning over the lengthy strike that it has wrought. They don't have the votes to change the course of the negotiations, so they may have to try to buy their way out.
Orioles owner Peter Angelos already has proposed an alternative revenue-sharing plan that would help struggling teams finance new stadiums, a plan that was acknowledged favorably in an economic analysis distributed by Major League Baseball last Wednesday.
The trouble is, the owners appear to be long past the point where they can re-evaluate their position without giving the appearance of surrender. And Angelos has been pushed so far outside baseball's inner circle that anything he suggests is likely to be dismissed by the opinion leaders within management.
Rumors continue to circulate that activity behind the scenes may lead to a breakthrough in the negotiations, but there is so little room for compromise that it may not matter whether negotiations take place on the telephone or in Times Square.
Ravitch continues to say that cost is the only fundamental issue, but the individual clubs don't figure to be quite so dogmatic. If a significant percentage of them can be convinced that enhanced revenue sharing will improve their lot, then what remains to be gained may not be worth the pain of carrying the 26-day-old work stoppage into the winter.
Ravitch again took great pains last week to convey the notion that management unity remains solid, but the cancellation of this week's quarterly ownership meeting only can be interpreted as another attempt to manage internal dissent. The last thing that Ravitch and Selig want to do is bring a bunch of frustrated large-market owners together in the same hotel and give them a chance to mutiny.
"All you need to know is, they canceled the owners meeting so they could concentrate on the negotiations, and now they don't want to negotiate," said union chief Donald Fehr.
The latest attempt to rekindle negotiations fell flat last Wednesday, leaving baseball within days of scrapping the remainder of the regular season. It now seems highly unlikely the big-market owners can forge an internal compromise in time to save the stretch and the postseason.