WASHINGTON -- It could be the breakthrough that baseball fans have been waiting for since the players strike began Aug. 12. After a day of negotiations with the National Labor Relations Board, the owners last night lifted the salary cap that they imposed six weeks ago.
Pressure has been mounting on both sides to make meaningful progress in this latest set of collective bargaining talks. President Clinton set a Monday deadline for some kind of movement, and the decision to remove the implemented settlement and continue negotiations may be enough to prevent drastic government action.
The players and owners worked on noneconomic issues early in the day and then spent most of the afternoon consulting with the NLRB, which is investigating bad-faith bargaining complaints by both sides. The owners, perhaps feeling pressure from too many directions, may have helped their case by agreeing to back away from the unilateral implementation of a new economic system.
"As I understand it, every aspect of the implementation has been lifted," said one union official. "We're back to Dec. 22."
Presumably, the Major League Baseball Players Association will respond by lifting the six-week embargo on contract signings and clear the way for major-league front offices to get back to building major-league rosters.
But, the decision to lift the cap doesn't necessarily mean that the owners are about to fold. They obviously recognized the possibility that they could suffer serious financial damage if their December impasse declaration didn't pass muster with the NLRB, but they did not give up their right to negotiate for a new economic system.
It's possible that the decision could put pressure on the players to bargain more seriously, since union director Donald Fehr can no longer hold the trump card of NLRB intervention in reserve. The union's crusade to get the anti-trust exemption lifted also figures to lose some steam.
The owners apparently have not given up their right to declare an impasse again if no progress can be made toward a settlement. They also have not given up their right to lock the players out if the union decides to send them back to work, but ownership would not have the option of using replacement players in a lockout situation.
When owners put the cap in place in December, they changed many of the major rules that had governed the game since 1976. They eliminated salary arbitration, created a new class of restricted free agents and gave themselves the right to release players at any time for any reason.
Apparently, the restricted free agents -- players with between four and six seasons in the majors -- are again eligible for arbitration. This group includes the Orioles' Mike Mussina, Ben Mcdonald and Chris Hoiles. But new deadlines and hearing dates are yet to be discussed.
The Clinton administration is expected to keep the heat on both parties to make progress toward a mutually agreeable settlement. The Monday deadline for significant progress in the negotiations has not been lifted. The second joint session of the day wasn't scheduled to begin until 9 p.m., but the threat of a major snowstorm seemed to guarantee that the two negotiating teams will have little else to do but get down to business today and tomorrow. The union spent at least part of yesterday preparing a counteroffer to the comprehensive proposal that was presented by the owners on Wednesday.
Special mediator William J. Usery checked into the headquarters hotel to begin a major push for a settlement, but there still has not been enough talk about the central economic issue -- ownership's demand for cost control -- to determine whether a quick settlement is possible.
The Clinton administration obviously thinks so, or at least hopes so. Labor secretary Robert Reich said yesterday that he is
cautiously optimistic that a settlement is near. Presidential spokesman Mike McCurry indicated that the administration isn't going to leave it to chance.
"The president this weekend will take a 40-ounce Louisville Slugger to both parties and tell them to get a settlement by Monday," McCurry said. "That's what we would like to see happen."
But, Congressional action would be required to impose a settlement. Nevertheless, Clinton is pressing Usery to mediate an end to the dispute by Monday or put together a settlement to recommend to the administration.
"I've made recommendations before, but certainly not like the situation we're in here now," Usery said. "Look, everybody needs a settlement the players, the owners, the fans, everybody. I expect to be here over the weekend. Long hours, too."
NLRB officials notified the players and owners early in the day that arguments will be heard next week, the players presenting theirs on Wednesday in Washington and the owners giving their side on Thursday. Labor board officials also apparently summoned representatives of both sides to their offices to discuss ways to pre-empt the complaints.
General managers Sandy Alderson and Dave Dombrowski, both members of baseball's operations committee, arrived in Washington yesterday to join the negotiations. So did longtime ownership attorney John Westhoff, who would be involved in drafting any final agreement. But the union contingent got smaller, as some players left town to avoid the bad weather.
In a related development, the union canceled Monday's meeting with manager's coaches and trainers in Dallas. Usery requested that the meeting be canceled so that the negotiations would not be interrupted.