Rockies owner sees settlement in view

March 01, 1995|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff Writer

Finally, there appears to be some movement in the long-deadlocked baseball negotiations.

The second day of intense discussions in Scottsdale, Ariz., ended yesterday with one owner expressing optimism that a settlement is near, even though both sides acknowledged that they have not gotten down to the nuts and bolts of a new labor agreement.

"If we make good progress, there may be a settlement tomorrow," Colorado Rockies owner Jerry McMorris told the Los Angeles Times last night. "Otherwise, Thursday is a big day.

"This was the most positive bargaining session as it applies to the core issues as we've had since the process began. I don't want to imply that we're ready to dot the i's or cross the t's, but we're genuinely searching, digging and exploring."

That opinion was shared by at least one other member of the ownership negotiating team, but McMorris is known to be the most upbeat and optimistic member of either bargaining unit. He has foreseen the end of this dispute before, only to be disappointed when his rose-colored view of the situation turned out to be unfounded.

Negotiations resumed with expanded bargaining teams on the second day of meetings at the golf club at Gainey Ranch. The latest round of talks began with five hours of small-group meetings on Monday at the winter home of acting commissioner Bud Selig. The owners and striking players met twice in larger groups yesterday to continue their discussion of the economic issues that have divided them since ownership first proposed a salary cap last June.

Perhaps a settlement is near, but it's also possible that both sides have been disarmed by the surprisingly conciliatory atmosphere that has developed over the past eight days. This is the first time that the players and owners have been truly civil to each other, but they still have to make some tough tradeoffs if they are to reach an agreement in time to protect the integrity of the 1995 regular season.

Even union director Donald Fehr, who usually has trouble hiding his disgust for baseball management, conceded that the atmosphere has changed dramatically.

"In two ways," Fehr said. "There is an appreciation that the calendar has advanced so far, that if there isn't some agreement reached fairly quickly, it's unavoidable you'll have some effect on the 1995 season . . . and I think that has had an effect on the way discussions are being conducted.

"I don't want to suggest that everybody's lovey-dovey -- far from it. I do want to suggest that there are efforts being made to avoid the kind of discussions which produce hostility for its own sake."

There were even some minor agreements reached in the areas of scheduling, medical care and outright assignments to the minor leagues.

This is the last chance to avoid an ugly situation that could do serious damage to the image of the sport. If no settlement is reached in the next week or two, the owners are poised to open the season with strikebreakers. They will open the exhibition season today with minor-leaguers and replacement players, but could still get major-leaguers under contract and into uniform for Opening Day if something is accomplished before mid-March.

Boston Red Sox CEO John Harrington recently made Sunday the target date for a settlement that would allow the 1995 season to start on time with major-league players, but that is not a firm deadline. The owners would like to avoid delaying the start of the regular season because it might push the World Series into November, but they probably would prefer that to a season tainted by replacement games.

If this is another false start, the union would be left to wait for the cavalry to arrive in the form of the National Labor Relations Board, which is wrapping up an investigation into union charges that the owners are guilty of unfair labor practices.

If the NLRB issues a complaint against Major League Baseball and succeeds in obtaining an injunction to force the owners to play temporarily under the old economic system, the players have said that they will go back to work. But the owners likely would lock them out until a new agreement is negotiated.

In the unlikely event that the NLRB does not issue a complaint, the players would have little recourse but to return to the bargaining table and try to get the best possible deal. That is what union leaders claim they have been doing all along, but the prospect of governmental intervention has made it easier to stand firm against the new economic system the owners are trying to create.

The union has said that the players will stay home until July before they will accept a settlement that significantly inhibits salaries and free-agent movement, but they probably know that their chances of getting the owners to soften their hard-line bargaining stance will diminish once the season begins with replacement players.

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