Unsettled horizon full of clouds

April 04, 1995|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff Writer

CHICAGO -- Baseball is back, but the uneasy truce that will allow players to begin heading for spring training today could end up doing further harm to an already damaged industry.

The 1994 season was cut short by nearly two months when the players went on strike Aug. 12 and the World Series was canceled for the first time in 90 years. The 1995 season will be delayed for three weeks and shortened to 144 games. And now, because the players are all but guaranteed the terms of the previous labor agreement for another year, the 1996 season is in danger.

The uncivil war that has cost the industry nearly $900 million is far from over. The players and owners appeared to be closing in on a deal when federal Judge Sonia Sotomayor issued an injunction that restored the old economic system and vented the pressure on both sides to make a game-saving play.

Negotiations could resume soon -- now that union and management lawyers have completed a back-to-work agreement -- but acting commissioner Bud Selig would not even concede Sunday that ownership's most recent contract proposal is still on the table. The owners, for all of their conciliatory comments Sunday night, still hold out hope of forcing the players to accept strict controls on salary growth. Those controls will not come without another fight.

Both sides seem willing to concede that the 1995 season will be played in its entirety, which means that fight probably will be postponed until November. That is bad news for beleaguered fans, whose patience appears to be endless, and whose best interests appear to be irrelevant to either side.

Their best hope may be that management's hard-line faction will be so discredited that some new power structure will emerge and forge a lasting peace with the Major League Baseball Players Association. The union also will have to make plans to arrive in the real world, where several small-market teams clearly are in financial trouble.

"There are labor/management problems in all industries and this has been a long and nasty one," said Orioles owner Peter Angelos, who could become a major player if there is a management power shift, "but the players and owners recognize the need to get their differences resolved in an amiable manner."

Maybe that's true. Maybe the economic damage wrought by the 7 1/2 -month work stoppage was so great that neither side will have the stomach for another nuclear winter. Or maybe, with their bellies again full, both sides will be ready for another self-destructive exercise in corporate gamesmanship.

Of course, it could come much sooner than that. The owners go to court today in a long-shot attempt to get Friday's injunction lifted. It is no coincidence that they designated tomorrow as the first day that players may report to spring training.

If a three-judge appellate panel agrees to grant a stay, the owners likely will reinstate the central bargaining system that sent the union to the National Labor Relations Board for an unfair labor complaint.

Union associate general counsel Gene Orza said Sunday night that the players might not report under those conditions, though it seems more likely that the players would go back to work, confident that ownership's expedited appeal of the injunction would be denied.

"Obviously, we will go to court on Tuesday," Selig said. "Certainly that is part of the equation, but we have to focus our attention on the field and we will focus our attention on the field."

There is no reason why the management bargaining committee cannot fly to New York today to focus its attention on hammering out a long-term labor agreement, except the perception that the union has little motivation to resume negotiations.

The last time the two negotiating teams were in the same room, the owners were looking for a luxury tax plan with a 50 percent rate and a payroll threshold of $44 million. The union's latest offer called for a 25 percent tax on excess payroll over $50 million.

It doesn't take a mathematician to find the middle ground, but the union's improved leverage -- and the expanded time frame -- will make it hard for ownership to wrest any further concessions on the tax and the length of the proposed agreement.

But union officials still insist that they are eager to negotiate and motivated to reach an agreement.

"The union's desire is to reach a new long-term agreement," union director Donald Fehr said over the weekend. "If we don't reach an agreement, you still have the chance for a strike or a lockout. I think that's motivation enough to get an agreement."

There also is room to wonder about ownership's motivation. The owners have complied with the federal court ruling. They have cooperated with special mediator William J. Usery. They made what appeared to be significant concessions in the proposal Usery asked them to make last week. If they play the 1995 season without interruption, they may be in a position to declare a legal impasse if an agreement is not reached soon after the World Series.

The NLRB overturned their previous implementation, but they might have a far better case for impasse when the dispute enters its fourth year in December. Sotomayor ordered them to come back to her before they attempt to change any work rules unilaterally, but her jurisdiction could expire by then if the standing NLRB complaint is settled . . . or she could rule that the owners waited long enough this time.

Either way, it would leave the players with only one possible response. Another walkout. Another season tainted. Another reason to watch basketball.

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