CHICAGO -- Baseball's four-year labor dispute was settled yesterday, when owners voted overwhelmingly to ratify a new collective bargaining agreement with the Major League Baseball Players Association and end a battle over the economic future of the game.
The owners voted 26-4 to approve the same agreement that they rejected, 18-12, three weeks ago, guaranteeing labor peace through 2000 and reviving a 1997 experiment with interleague play.
The deal calls for a stiff luxury tax on player payrolls in excess of $51 million next year, with the threshold rising in 1998 and 1999. The new contract also calls for incremental raises in the minimum major-league salary, sets new arbitration rules, and allows owners to go forward with revenue sharing and expansion.
There still is some contract language to work out and the executive board of the players union must formally approve the deal, but the union leaders already have been authorized by the players to ratify this settlement.
"This is a landmark day for baseball," said interim commis-
sioner Bud Selig. "It gives me a great personal pleasure to say that baseball fans can now look forward to five years [the contract contains an option for 2001] of uninterrupted play. We can now work together to bring peace to the game and reconnect our sport to all of our fans."
The end came quickly and quietly, much in contrast with the long-running dispute that led to a 232-day players strike and to the damaging decision to cancel the 1994 postseason.
"I think everyone felt it was time to put this to an end and move forward for the good of the game," said Chicago Cubs president Andy MacPhail, who voted with the majority. "There just comes a time that you have to do things for the game and hope for the
Orioles owner Peter Angelos, who voted against the deal during the first ratification meeting and had given indications that he would oppose it again, chose instead to join in the approval vote once it became apparent that there would be enough votes for ratification.
"We voted for it," he said. "I think everyone is pleased that it's over, that there is an agreement and that the continuity of Major League Baseball is guaranteed for the next five years."
Angelos was voting against his own economic interests,
because the Orioles figure to be one of the teams hit hardest by the luxury tax. They had the second-highest payroll in baseball last year and are expected to remain one of the biggest spenders in 1997.
The only teams to vote against ratification were the Chicago White Sox, Oakland Athletics, Cleveland Indians and Kansas City Royals. Eight "no" votes were needed to prevent ratification.
Union head Donald Fehr applauded the decision and vowed to work hard to rebuild the tarnished image of the sport.
"With the conclusion of these negotiations, the dark cloud that has been hanging over the sport for too long will dissipate," he said in a statement. "Now, we must get to work on the even more important business at hand."
The vote appeared to be a clear repudiation of powerful White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, who was considered the driving force behind a successful effort to block the agreement at the Nov. 6 owners meeting. His coalition of opposition owners appeared to disintegrate with his decision to sign free-agent outfielder Albert Belle to a record five-year, $55 million contract a week ago.
Though the owners denied that the Belle contract had any impact on the vote, several teams expressed displeasure after the leader of the ownership hard-liners added to the game's salary spiral.
Reinsdorf was unrepentant, and he reasserted his opposition to the new labor deal after yesterday's two-hour meeting.
"I voted against because I didn't think it solved any problems," Reinsdorf said. "The agreement is probably good for the White Sox, because it dooms the small-market clubs to not being able to compete, and we're a large-market club."
It hurts the White Sox in one big way, because it restores service time lost by players during the 1994-95 strike and releases Chicago pitching ace Alex Fernandez into the free-agent market. The Orioles, among several other clubs, are expected to bid heavily for his services.
Fernandez is one of the most prominent members of a new group of free agents who will enter the market because of the added service time or because of a clause in the new contract that eliminates the ability of clubs to offer arbitration to potential free agents who have declared free agency in the previous five years.
That group also includes All-Star outfielder Moises Alou, reliever Mel Rojas and shortstop Mike Bordick, all of whom could be of interest to the Orioles.