On eve of new talks, owners' ad not a plus

November 10, 1994|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff Writer

Perhaps a change of scenery will help. The stalled baseball negotiations are scheduled to resume today at a resort hotel outside New York, but there still is little reason to expect that special mediator William J. Usery can break the collective bargaining deadlock that cut short the 1994 season.

The owners apparently don't think so. They have begun a public relations campaign that could be the prelude to unilateral implementation of their salary cap proposal.

The union appears just as skeptical, and why not? The owners were willing to cancel the World Series to achieve the new economic order they say the sport needs. Why should they be willing to compromise now?

Nevertheless, the negotiations will begin again early today at the Doral Arrowwood Resort in Rye Brook, N.Y., and could extend into the weekend. Usery, who was asked to enter the dispute by the Clinton administration, has spent the past couple of weeks trying to lay the groundwork for substantive discussions, but he may find out in the next few days why federal mediators abandoned an earlier attempt to mediate the dispute.

"He's going there with an open heart and an open mind," said Dick Conn, a spokesman for Usery.

It remains to be seen if the owners are going in with an open mind, but they delivered an open letter to baseball fans yesterday in the form of a full-page advertisement in USA Today. In it, they restated their case for financial restraints and portrayed their salary cap as the only way to keep baseball affordable to the average fan.

"Other professional sports organizations have recognized they must maintain competitive parity, market their product intelligently, and preserve the financial integrity of their individual teams," the ad said. "These other leagues have done so with labor agreements that establish team salary mandates or ranges -- establishing pay ceilings and, just as important, salary floors -- that enable more teams to be competitive.

"Skyrocketing costs in baseball have doubled over the past five years and threaten the long-term financial viability of MLB franchises. Huge payrolls also impair the league's competitive parity, especially in smaller markets that lack the local television, radio, and cable revenue levels of larger markets."

That essentially is what the owners have been saying from the beginning, but the timing of this particular public relations ploy left union officials wondering if there is any real reason to show up for today's collective bargaining session.

According to the USA Today advertising department, the rate for a full-page ad in the sports section is $77,632. USA Today would not say if Major League Baseball had paid that much.

"The ad was timed and phrased to be provocative," said union director Donald Fehr. "It's a clear indication that they are thumbing their nose at the world and the mediator. If you take it at face value, there's no reason to talk to them. It's just a recitation of what they have been saying all along."

Acting commissioner Bud Selig, who has attended just one bargaining session, on Sept. 9, but will be at the talks today, told reporters that the ad was not meant to be confrontational. He said it was composed two weeks ago -- before this round of negotiations was scheduled.

"Certainly at that time we didn't know anything about the mediation process taking place with meetings starting Thursday," Selig said. "We don't believe it's at all confrontational."

Still, it hit the newsstands at an inopportune time for Usery, who has been trying to reduce the tension between the two bargaining units.

"We were surprised to find out about it," Conn said, "but we don't have any comment to make. As usual, Mr. Usery doesn't want to become involved in newspaper dialogue either pro or con."

The owners are not expected to come to the table with a compromise proposal. The ad restated the terms of their original contract offer, which calls for a salary cap based on a 50-50 split of gross revenues. They don't figure to offer any significant concessions unless they are willing to abandon the possibility of unilateral implementation.

Because labor law allows management to impose its last best offer unilaterally if there is a legal impasse, the owners have no incentive to make a conciliatory overture to the union. Any concession would turn into a giveaway if the union held firm and the owners declared an impasse.

The owners already may have scored one victory in their long-running dispute with the union, if the large congressional turnover blunts the attempt to lift Major League Baseball's antitrust exemption. Many of the key players in the assault on the exemption were turned out of office, and the new Congress may be too busy trying to carry out election promises to deal with it.

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