NEW YORK -- The baseball labor negotiations have taken another emotional swing . . . and perhaps a miss.
Baseball owners, in an attempt to break the deadlock that has kept the game in crisis since August, came forth with a new proposal last night that might have had a major catalytic effect on the negotiations if it had not arrived with just six days remaining before the scheduled start of the 1995 season.
Instead of a big move and a major public relations coup for an ownership negotiating team that has taken its lumps over the past eight months, the new proposal was presented as a take-it-or-watch-replacements offer that is almost certain to be rejected by the Major League Baseball Players Association.
No one said that the offer was non-negotiable, but everything that acting commissioner Bud Selig said made it clear that the owners were making their final offer before hunkering down to watch strikeball. The offer is good until Saturday, then watch out.
"Once the season starts, we can't calculate what is going to happen," Selig said. "That's why this offer has got to be accepted."
You don't have to squint to read between the lines here. The owners honored a request by special mediator William J. Usery to come forth with their best possible offer. They did that for two reasons -- to weaken the resolve of rank-and-file players who might be questioning union strategy, and to create the pretext for a second impasse declaration.
The National Labor Relations Board forced them to reverse their first impasse declaration, but they may be in a better position to defend implementation after first agreeing to Usery's recommended settlement in February and now acceding to his wishes again.
Don't misunderstand. The owners made some legitimate concessions. They agreed to play the 1995 season under the terms of the old Basic Agreement, though they probably will have to do that, anyway, if the NLRB succeeds in convincing District Court Judge Sonia Sotomayor to issue an injunction reinstating the old work rules. They also agreed to allow the players to choose between the old salary arbitration and free-agent system or a new one that gives more players unrestricted free agency.
The trouble is, the package still would cause free-agent salaries to crash, something that the union will never willingly allow to happen. The new proposal raises the luxury tax threshold to $44 million, but the 50 percent tax on excess payroll -- particularly if combined with the old salary arbitration/free-agency system -- would leave free agents all dressed up with no place to go.
There would be no limits on arbitration awards, so the owners would be left with far less to spend on free agents. That would impair the earning power and movement of the players who make up the most influential constituency in the union, so it seems highly unlikely that the union's executive board would go along with the program.
The owners appear to have the upper hand in the dispute at the moment, but the players were buoyed by the decision of the NLRB to seek a preliminary injunction forcing the owners to play temporarily under the old system. If the injunction is granted this weekend, the players will call off the 7 1/2 -month strike and force the owners to take a public relations hit by voting to stage a lockout.
Management negotiators have made it clear that they will do just that, but the players may be content to await the vote. Ownership's internal rules require a supermajority to approve any work stoppage, so 21 of the 28 major-league clubs must approve a lockout. The votes apparently are there, but with five teams apparently ready to vote no, it would only take a handful of defectors to throw management's hard-line core off-balance.
It probably won't happen, but it's not out of the realm of possibility. So the players are likely to wait and see.
That may turn out to be a mistake, because this may be the best deal that they can get, but they are not likely to surrender until they are in full retreat. No deal.
Details of the plan proposed last night by baseball owners:
The 1995 season would be played under the same rules as existed in 1994.
Starting in 1996, the portion of a team's payroll over $44 million would be subject to a luxury tax of 50 percent. The threshold would be adjusted starting in 1999 with a cost-of-living adjustment. Teams would be required to maintain a minimum payroll.
FREE AGENCY, SALARY ARBITRATION
Players could choose either the current system of free agency and salary arbitration, or opt for a system in which there is no arbitration after 1996 and the threshold for free agency would be four years, down from the current six.
Six years, one less than management's previous proposal.