Principals tone down war of words on labor

Union chief Fehr briefs Orioles on state of affairs

Baseball

March 22, 2001|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Major League Baseball may be headed for another troublesome labor dispute, but union chief Donald Fehr said yesterday that both sides remain committed to toning down the war of words that has accompanied each of the past collective bargaining confrontations.

"I think that there has been a marked reduction in the kind of public squabbling we've seen in the last several negotiations," Fehr said. "We're not perfect, but I think we're doing a better job."

The sounds of labor silence should be music to the ears of baseball fans who lost patience with the sport during the lengthy strike that cut into the 1994 and '95 seasons and caused the first World Series cancellation since 1904. Labor and management officials vowed after that debacle to work toward a better relationship, though the depth of that commitment could be sorely tested when serious bargaining begins later this year.

Fehr, making his annual tour of spring training camps, briefed the Orioles on union business for more than two hours yesterday at Fort Lauderdale Stadium. The current labor agreement doesn't expire until Oct. 31, but the upcoming negotiations -- predictably -- were the hot topic of discussion.

There already are rumblings that ownership will attempt to extract major concessions from the players in an attempt to bridge the wide economic divide between large- and small-market clubs. But Fehr said yesterday that it likely will be months before each side submits any major bargaining proposals.

"I don't think for a while yet," he said. "Under ordinary circumstances, full-scale bargaining seven or eight months before [expiration] would be pretty unusual. Obviously, we're doing some preliminary work, and we're meeting with the other side in the ordinary course of business. If it gets to the point of real urgency, you won't have to ask."

The volume of the rhetoric speaks volumes about the sensitivity of both sides to the possibility of turning off fans during the 2001 season. Commissioner Bud Selig has made a few public statements about the dire state of baseball economics, but neither side has been publicly critical of the other.

Still, there is little evidence that either side has come off its core position. The owners continue to seek ways to limit payroll growth. The union remains resistant to anything that even vaguely resembles a salary cap.

Clearly, Fehr remains unconvinced that Major League Baseball is facing the economic catastrophe that Selig has been predicting for the past decade.

"The principal thing that has happened, revenue has gone up at a very rapid rate," Fehr said. "It has doubled since 1996. That's a credit to a lot of people. There are clubs doing well, and there are some that aren't. ... It strikes me that the issue again will be revenue sharing."

Revenue sharing turned out to be the major issue of the last labor dispute. The owners haggled for months among themselves to come up with an enhanced revenue-sharing plan but passed it only on the condition that it be accompanied by a salary cap. The final deal with the players did not include a salary cap but did include a stiff luxury tax on the teams with the five highest payrolls.

The luxury tax helped to subsidize some of the struggling small-market clubs, but ownership didn't feel it went far enough.

But the industry as a whole, Fehr says, is in good health.

"Overall, sure," he said, "but that doesn't mean it is in perfect health everywhere. Any time you have an industry that has 30 ownership groups, you're going to have some clubs that generate a lot of revenue and some that don't. Any time you have a set of teams in different circumstances, you have a revenue spread.

"I expect ownership will put additional revenue sharing on the table, and we'll sit down and talk about it."

Fehr can trot out a whole list of examples of teams that once were revenue-challenged and now are thriving.

"We used to hear that the small markets couldn't make it," he said, "but if my memory serves me, the third-highest revenue producer last year was San Francisco, and Seattle also was up there. I tell some players now, `Why is the movie `Major League' about the Indians?' They aren't old enough to remember that people considered that franchise a joke. Nobody thinks that anymore."

Selig apparently is convinced that the economic state of a couple of teams is close to irreparable. He said recently that the possibility of contraction -- closing down one or more struggling franchises -- "is on the table." Whether that's just pre-bargaining bluster or a real threat, Fehr doesn't seem concerned.

"They talk about that ... they don't talk about it," he said. "If they decide to do it, they'll have to tell us and bargain the effects. I don't think it's a terribly healthy thing to talk about."

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