ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- A head-on collision between the Orioles and Major League Baseball over the issue of replacement players can only be averted, it seems, if the players and owners reach a labor agreement before Opening Day.
Time to buckle up.
Assuming the owners follow through on their plan to field replacement players for striking major-leaguers -- and they still haven't formally ratified the use of replacement players with a vote -- and assuming that Orioles owner Peter Angelos maintains his stance not to participate, Major League Baseball soon must deal with its Bird problem.
"The American League thinks Baltimore has an obligation to field a team," league president Gene Budig said Thursday. "The Orioles are not meeting their fundamental obligations."
Budig reiterated that he has three means of disciplining Angelos and the Orioles:
* If the Orioles refuse to play, Budig could declare the games forfeited.
* Budig could suspend Orioles officials, beginning with Angelos.
* He could fine the club up to $250,000 per game.
Budig noted an option beyond his jurisdiction, that the other owners could move to take over the Orioles.
"I must act in a way that is sensitive to the needs of all the clubs" Budig said.
He has no easy options. There is no apparent middle ground.
"I don't know what we could compromise on," said Angelos, who has talked occasionally with lawyers for the league.
Regardless of which route Budig chooses, he will immediately splash into other pools of problems, including possible litigation from Angelos, who made his millions in the courts.
The entire matter is complicated by the consecutive-games streak of Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken. If the other owners pirate the team away from Angelos and field a team in place of the Orioles, then technically speaking, the streak would end -- although baseball officials are quietly saying they will do everything they can to perpetuate Ripken's feat, such as issuing a dictum through the commissioner's office that the streak cannot be broken by the strike.
(And Budig stopped just short of saying he will ensure that the record-breaking game will be played at Camden Yards: "I am sensitive to the fans of Baltimore and will work to bring about a reasonable outcome.")
If Budig punishes the Orioles by ordering forfeits, he would simultaneously affect the other division races. The Texas Rangers, scheduled to play the Orioles seven times in the first two weeks, would be given a huge leg up in the AL West race. Similarly, the Chicago White Sox would pick up five wins the first two weeks without taking the field.
Rangers GM Doug Melvin and Seattle GM Woody Woodward, two principals affected by such a decision, said yesterday that they hadn't really thought much about the ramifications of Orioles forfeits. "I've got enough trouble," Woodward said, "trying to put together a team. I'll abide by whatever decision [Budig] makes . . . and I'm sure it will be fair and equitable."
Two or three weeks of forfeits would wipe out any chance of the Orioles' contending for the AL East title, as well -- strong motivation for Angelos, who will have one of the highest payrolls in baseball this year, to pursue legal remedies.
The course of action with the least possible blood-letting would be to discipline Angelos with a fine or suspensions, and simply take the Orioles' games off the schedule.
But again, innocent bystanders would be hurt. Instead of seven victories in the first two weeks, the Rangers would have seven open dates.
"That's part of the issue," said AL vice president Phyllis Mehrige. "All of those things have to be looked at. Obviously, we want to do the right thing for everybody."
Rangers president Tom Schieffer said: "We want to play those games. I don't think anyone is interested in winning games by forfeit. It might benefit us in the short run, but in the long run, I don't think it's good for anybody.
"It's really hard to get the rhythm of the season going when you're off seven out of 11 games."
If the Orioles don't participate in replacement games, and the strike ends, for example, on May 15, how then will they be incorporated into a divisional race? Well, for the first time during this strike, the possible implementation of a so-called split season is being raised.
The union insists that any agreement cannot be signed unless the results of replacement games are voided. However, once the owners sell tickets and TV time for regular-season replacement games, they cannot void the results entirely without leaving themselves open to lawsuits for misrepresenting their product.
A compromise, Philadelphia Phillies owner Bill Giles suggested this week, would be the split season, used during the strike-shortened season of 1981. Suppose the New York Yankees, White Sox and Rangers were leading the division races on June 15, when a labor agreement is reached. Those teams would be declared first-half champions and win spots in the postseason playoffs.