Fehr hits road, but destination unclear

September 22, 1994|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff Writer

TAMPA, Fla. -- Major League Baseball Players Association director Donald Fehr has gone on tour.

He stopped to meet with union members in Atlanta on Tuesday, came to Florida yesterday and will testify at a congressional hearing on baseball's antitrust exemption in Washington today. He also will make stops in Chicago, Los Angeles, Phoenix and Dallas as he carries the specifics of baseball's most destructive labor dispute to his constituents.

For a period of 10 days, Fehr knows exactly where he will be and what will be happening. Beyond that is anybody's guess.

Welcome to baseball's mean season. No playoffs, no World Series and no telling just how baseball management will conduct the first off-season without a mutually agreed upon labor contract in the history of collective bargaining.

It is an uncertain landscape that is certain to affect everyone connected to the game, from the players who remain on strike to the agents who represent them, from the front-office officials who will try to lure them back to the minor-league players who may be asked to replace them next spring.

The owners are busy putting together the list of working conditions they will impose on the union after they declare the stalled negotiations to be at impasse, but that is only half the battle.

The rules they implement may create the framework for the economic system of the future, but it will have to withstand the immediate resistance of the striking union membership and the long-term consequences of the legal and political assault that is sure to follow.

"They [the owners] have to decide what they want to do," said Fehr, as he prepared yesterday to tell a group of 47 players how to prepare for the worst. "Time will tell. We think there are going to be a lot of legal and practical inhibitions to implementation."

Union lawyers already have filed an unfair labor practice complaint against management for withholding $7.8 million in All-Star revenues that traditionally go into the players' pension fund. There also are grievances pending for several individual player personnel decisions. But that might be only the beginning of the legal counterattack that is weeks away.

Management is hoping the players give up and come home. Union leadership is talking about carrying the strike well into the 1995 season. The interim could be chaotic.

"I hope we'll be able to establish some order," said Milwaukee Brewers owner and acting commissioner Bud Selig, who also will testify at today's congressional hearing, "but I don't know. Hopefully, we'll get back to the table at some point. That's where this should be determined."

What is known

In an environment of unprecedented uncertainty, one thing is certain: The negotiating rights of players in every service class -- from rookie to free agent -- would be dramatically altered under the system that the owners plan to impose.

Salary arbitration would be eliminated, and players still would have to wait six years to become unrestricted free agents.

Players with four to six years' service time would be free to negotiate with other clubs, but their original teams would have the right to match outside offers.

The rules governing unrestricted free agency wouldn't change much, but the imposition of a revenue-based salary cap would reduce the amount of money available for free agents and inhibit the opportunity of players to leave their original clubs.

That's why the players were willing to shut down the 1994 season and forfeit a third of their salaries in a vain attempt to push the owners off their hard-line position.

"This is about far more than a salary cap," Fehr said. "This is about busting people's chops."

What is not known

The owners have the legal right to implement the salary cap -- subject to future litigation -- but their ability to get the new system up and running remains in question.

If they intend to stay close to established procedures, as one ownership source indicated they might, they could begin making overtures to the 192 eligible free agents in early November and send out contracts to the remaining players on the 40-man major-league rosters by the traditional Dec. 20 deadline.

The union must decide whether to advise players to negotiate contracts or to ignore any management contact. Conceivably, the players and their agents could go about the off-season in much the same way that they normally do, which would prevent a last-minute free-for-all for free agents if a settlement were reached early next year.

"A lot of that depends on what they do and how they do it, so I don't know yet," Fehr said. "We'll be in ongoing contact [with the players], and we'll be formulating what steps we will be taking."

Players could sign contracts and still refuse to report to work if no settlement were reached by the opening of spring training, but it also is conceivable that the owners would offer inducements to free agents to report to camp.

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