RYE BROOK, N.Y. -- The Major League Baseball Players BTC Association attempted to call ownership's bluff yesterday, but the wide-ranging new contract proposal that was presented to management is not expected to lead to a settlement in baseball's bitter labor dispute.
The players' new proposal would set up a revenue-sharing and taxation system that satisfies ownership's desire to raise $58 million to help struggling small-market clubs. It also includes provisions for a jointly financed $60 million industry growth fund to invest in the future of the game and for player participation in major decisions such as the selection of a new commissioner.
"The purpose of this proposal is not only to break the logjam and get something that everyone can live with," said union director Donald Fehr, "but to do so in a way that forces the parties to do something that they have not done in 20 years -- work together on a day-to-day basis."
Though the tone of the union's presentation was conciliatory, the initial response from management was less than encouraging. The owners -- as well as special mediator William J. Usery -- were unhappy that the players chose to release the proposal to the public, and said so in no uncertain terms. Management released a statement through bargaining committee chairman John Harrington that left little doubt the owners will reject the proposal after they review it overnight.
"We are encouraged by their concerns about our 'mutual self-interest' in growing the game and welcome the prospects of a lasting relationship between owners and players," Harrington said. "However, as we have consistently told the union, the clubs must evaluate any proposal based on the following criteria:
"First, does the plan address cost certainty? Two, does it result in the reduction of player costs from 58 percent to 50 percent of revenue? Three, does it deal with payroll disparity and encourage competitive balance?"
Because the plan does not call for a salary cap, does not eliminate salary arbitration and does not assign a specific percentage of revenue for labor costs, it seems highly unlikely that the owners will embrace it and suspend their plan to implement the salary cap later this week. The owners had said they would examine the new proposal carefully -- and one owner said late last night that he was confident they would formulate a quick counterproposal -- but the tone of their initial response was not lost on the players.
The union tried to take the offensive in the negotiations by proposing a system that would transfer $58 million in the first year of the agreement. The revenue-sharing accord reached by the owners last January would not have transferred the full $58 million until the fourth year.
The players also propose to contribute at least $30 million out of union funds to create the industry growth fund, with ownership's half coming from future expansion fees. That fund would be administered by a joint industry growth committee that could use the money for anything from market research to stadium enhancement.
The plan was designed to satisfy several of ownership's objectives without imposing controls on salaries, but that still figures to be the one issue that stands in the way of meaningful progress in the negotiations.
Part of Harrington's statement was in direct contradiction to the comments he made upon his arrival at the Doral Arrowwood Resort and Conference Center Friday afternoon. He said then that the owners had stepped away from their insistence on cost certainty in their last proposal and crossed a wide philosophical chasm.
He appeared to be saying just the opposite yesterday.
"He obviously misspoke himself [Friday]," said Atlanta Braves president Stan Kasten. "Cost certainty remains very important to us."
The original ownership game plan called for the richest teams to subsidize struggling small-market clubs and soften the financial impact with a salary cap. The owners recently modified the salary-cap proposal and presented an alternative plan that would impose a severe tax on excess payrolls.
Though the players' proposal would not significantly control payrolls, union officials estimate that the plan would save owners as much as $100 million in salaries over the life of the proposed taxation system. The revenue-sharing and taxation provisions of the union plan would remain in effect for three years, after which union officials hope that revenue growth would make it unnecessary.
The proposal drew a positive response from the special mediator, but Usery blasted the players for choosing to make it public after he and the owners had asked them to keep the specifics of the negotiations behind closed doors.
"I think it is unfortunate that it was aired in public like this," Usery said. "Proposals should be made across the bargaining table. We cannot negotiate through the press."
THE UNION'S COUNTERPROPOSAL