In owners' realignment future, players union holds the cards

ON BASEBALL

October 12, 1997|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

Major League Baseball Players Association chief Donald Fehr never has been afraid to say no to baseball ownership. He is the stubborn union leader who blocked baseball's attempt to put a cap on salaries, and he has emerged as the most powerful voice in the debate over realignment.

The San Francisco Giants can cry all they want about the negative effects of the radical realignment plan that would put them in the same league with the Oakland A's, but Giants owner Peter McGowan does not have the power to stop it. Fehr can tell the owners tomorrow that it isn't going to happen and it isn't.

The union wasn't given veto power over the realignment plan, but its shared authority on interleague play gives it de facto veto power over virtually anything the owners try to do with the schedule.

The interleague experiment is set to expire after the 1998 season and cannot be renewed without the approval of the union. Because every conceivable realignment scenario includes interleague play, the owners cannot institute anything without union approval. Theoretically, they could implement a pilot plan for one season, but the union contends that such a drastic change in working conditions still would be a subject of collective bargaining.

Even if Fehr is wrong about that, just the threat of forcing the termination of interleague play is deterrent enough to keep the owners from making a unilateral decision on realignment.

Why is another union-management squabble brewing right in the middle of the postseason? Because the owners set an Oct. 15 deadline for voting on realignment. It seems highly doubtful that a vote will take place this week, but the issue figures to spark more controversy before it is settled.

Union officials have not been asked to pass judgment on anything yet, but the type of realignment plan that is being pushed by baseball's ruling Executive Council seems certain to meet with resistance from the players. Fehr has been cast in the unusual role of protector of tradition in this debate, but his likely objection to any radical releaguing effort will be based more on pragmatic considerations.

"We feel the leagues ought to retain as much of their integrity as possible," Fehr said, during a visit Thursday to Camden Yards. "Our view is that you ought not break the leagues up without compelling evidence that it's the right thing to do."

The union apparently has not received any studies that show the tTC game will realize an economic benefit from moving several West Coast American League teams into the National League, which would happen under one of the most popular realignment scenarios. They do see the possibility that geographical realignment could have a negative effect on the earning potential of some players.

"Would Nike be interested in Ken Griffey if he played exclusively west of the Mississippi?" Fehr asked. "[Would] the American League lose something if it's not national in scope?"

Union officials also must determine the impact of realignment on the game's salary structure, which could be affected negatively if a large number of teams have to reconfigure their rosters to adapt to the changes in league designations. For example, teams moving from the American League to the National League figure to dump the veteran players who serve as full-time designated hitters, but there is no guarantee that teams moving the other way will pick them up.

The added emphasis on speed in the National League might encourage new NL clubs to move a younger, speedier -- and less expensive -- player into that role, leaving some of the union's most influential members with far less market value.

The average fan doesn't care about that, but a large portion of baseball's fan following apparently does care about maintaining some semblance of the traditional structure of the leagues. That's why this issue is a good one for the union, which for once does not figure to be cast as the villain in a national debate over the future of major-league baseball.

Molitor an Oriole?

The Orioles will be remaining in the AL under all possible realignment scenarios, so the designated-hitter role will be a hot topic in the early weeks of the off-season.

The club acquired Geronimo Berroa and Harold Baines during the season to platoon in the DH slot, but there apparently is a possibility that the club will go to a full-time DH next year -- and there is a possibility that it might be future Hall of Famer Paul Molitor.

It seems unlikely that the Orioles will offer Berroa arbitration at the end of the season, so he figures to become a free agent, creating a hole in the Orioles' lineup that could be filled by Eric Davis or a newcomer. Molitor has opted not to exercise a player option in his contract with the Minnesota Twins, so he can declare himself a free agent after the World Series and sign with anyone he wants.

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