RYE BROOK, N.Y. -- Special mediator William J. Usery has kept a last-ditch negotiating session alive for five days, but there still is no sign of a thaw in baseball's frozen labor dispute.
The players informed the owners early yesterday that they were not interested in the latest management counterproposal, a decision that was expected to end the final round of talks and encourage the owners to go through with their long-standing threat to implement a salary cap.
There has been no change in plans, but Usery kept both sides together late again last night and into this morning in an attempt to head off a declared impasse.
Management negotiators are scheduled to leave the Doral Arrowwood Conference Center today for a full ownership meeting in Chicago, where they will discuss expansion tonight and revamp baseball's economic system tomorrow afternoon.
That is, unless something dramatic and unexpected happens before it comes time for a full ownership vote on implementation.
Colorado Rockies owner Jerry McMorris said early this morning he expects the players to return to the table with a new proposal early today. But the owners are still working on a noon deadline, McMorris said, so they can make tomorrow's meeting in Chicago.
The third straight set of late-night meetings left room to wonder if there was still hope of a breakthrough that would delay the Chicago meeting or make it unnecessary, but Major League Baseball Players Association director Donald Fehr had no concrete answers when the bargaining units took a break at 1 a.m. before recessing for the night at 2 a.m.
He would only say that both sides were working overtime to find a "magic bullet" that would jump-start the negotiations.
"The discussions have consisted of analyzing, reanalyzing and reanalyzing," Fehr said. "By 'magic bullet,' I mean an idea that nobody has thought of that will get us through this. We haven't found it yet."
An hour later, his tone hadn't changed. "It's a search for a mechanism that does the job," he said, before leaving to grab some sleep before the talks resumed this morning.
The players apparently have made no formal counterproposal to the ownership taxation plan that was presented to them Sunday. That plan calls for a 4.64 percent flat tax on all payrolls and a secondary threshold tax that could severely inhibit the growth of salaries. Union officials view it as another variation on the owners' salary cap proposal, though it does not place a hard ceiling on payrolls.
The union presented its latest taxation and revenue-sharing proposal Saturday, calling for a 5.02 percent tax on payrolls and a standardized 75-25 split of gate receipts in each league. That plan would transfer $58 million in revenues -- the same amount called for by ownership's Fort Lauderdale revenue-sharing accord -- but it would not produce the drag on salary growth that is management's top priority.
The ownership plan is far more restrictive, but the Rockies' McMorris said Monday it would have only about one-third the impact on salary growth as the previous management taxation plan.
Union economists disagree, but what else is new? The owners and players have been negotiating on and off for the past five months and have found little common ground.
Now, it appears, both sides can retreat to their offices in Manhattan and prepare legal briefs for the coming litigation season. If the owners implement the cap unilaterally, the players are expected to challenge the legality of the impasse declaration through the National Labor Relations Board and attack management on a number of other legal and governmental fronts.
The owners appear confident that their plans to implement their last salary cap proposal will survive those challenges, though there are a number of complex issues that will have to be resolved before they can field replacement teams this spring.
It is the union's position that the owners will have to negotiate to a second impasse before they can alter major-league rosters to include strike-breakers. In addition, the union has succeeded in persuading the Labor Department to certify the strike, which will make it illegal for the owners to bring in foreign players to play in replacement games.