RYE BROOK, N.Y. -- The baseball labor dispute edged closer to a declared impasse last night with an emotional and contentious negotiating session that lasted past midnight but apparently did little to bridge the wide philosophical gap between the players and owners.
Management officials had expressed optimism on Sunday that their modified taxation plan could open the door to a negotiated settlement in baseball's protracted labor dispute, but that was before the complicated proposal was picked apart by union economists.
The Major League Baseball Players Association studied it overnight Sunday and concluded that it was a salary cap in sheep's clothing. The union's skeptical response -- and lack of a quick counterproposal -- left little doubt that the next phase in the collective bargaining process will be played out before the National Labor Relations Board.
"It's frustrating," Kansas City Royals pitcher David Cone said during a break in the late-night talks. "We're trying to see if there is a deal to be made or whether they are just going through the motions."
The negotiations, which had been surprisingly cordial since special mediator William J. Usery entered the picture in October, erupted in an emotional exchange that left members of both bargaining teams looking drained and disappointed.
At one point, the players tried to pin down the owners on what aspect of the labor dispute was worth the long-term damage that would result from an impasse declaration.
"It was like Cecil Fielder saying to me, 'Give me your best fastball and I'll see if I can hit it,' " Cone said.
But no clear answer was forthcoming, further frustrating a union that did not officially turn down the ownership proposal but is likely to do so today.
pTC In the only conciliatory gesture of the day, the owners moved back their deadline for a union response until early today.
Barring a breakthrough, the owners figure to exercise their right to impose new working conditions on Thursday and the players are certain to challenge the declaration of an impasse with a claim that management did not bargain in good faith. How long that will take and how it will play out is anybody's guess.
The ownership bargaining unit appears willing to pursue that course, but the individual owners also appear to grasp the gravity -- and risks -- of a declared impasse.
"There will only be a deal when we negotiate a deal," said Atlanta Braves president Stan Kasten. "There won't be day-to-day baseball as we know it until that happens."
Nevertheless, there apparently are plenty of teams willing to risk months or even years of litigation for the potential financial rewards that would spring from the successful imposition of a ceiling on player payrolls. There is a real question whether the declaration of an impasse will hold up, but management appears confident it can survive a union counterattack that will be waged on both legal and governmental fronts.
"Let's just say that we haven't done anything without the advice of counsel and leave it at that," Kasten said.
The latest management counter proposal calls for a flat 4.64 percent tax on all payrolls and a more restrictive secondary tax that would kick in if total player compensation exceeds 50 percent of total revenues. The owners concede the system would create a drag on salaries, but insist it would be significantly less restrictive than their previous plan.
Union officials are not convinced. They are willing to allow a flat payroll tax, but will not sign onto any taxation vehicle that applies direct downward pressure on total payrolls.
"Have we changed our perception that it works the same as a salary cap?" said union associate general counsel Eugene Orza. "The answer is no."
Colorado Rockies owner Jerry McMorris obviously disagreed with that statement, claiming that the new plan would have only 25 to 35 percent the restrictive impact on payrolls that the previous management plan would have created.
"You have the right to do more payroll," McMorris said. "When you have a cap, you hit the cap and you're done."
The owners tried to tailor their latest offer to the framework that the players used to create the proposal they presented on Saturday, but the ownership tax proposal differs in several fundamental ways. Most important, the management plan calls for the elimination of salary arbitration in exchange for four-year restricted free agency.
The salary cap proposal that the owners figure to implement on Thursday also eliminates salary arbitration and downgrades a long list of noneconomic union benefits.
The concept is so offensive to the players that they could carry the strike into the 1995 season. They also may protest by boycotting attempts by ownership to negotiate individual contracts under the new system.