Selig trying to contract union leverage

ON BASEBALL

Baseball

February 03, 2002|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

The schedules have been released. Season tickets are on sale. Spring training is less than two weeks away.

So why do baseball commissioner Bud Selig and his top management types continue to insist that the controversial contraction plan is still on the table for 2002?

Surely, he has figured out that it would be all but impossible to disband two teams during spring training - that it would create more instability and uncertainty at a time when anxious baseball fans already are wondering what to expect from the resumption of labor talks in a clearly hostile economic environment.

Indeed he has, but there has to be a reason why he stubbornly clings to a 2002 timetable that was dead on arrival when he announced contraction in early November.

It was never going to happen this year. Selig's small army of consultants and lawyers knew that the announcement would set in motion the series of events that has transpired.

The union grievance - saying that owners acted too late to alter the 2002 schedule and that contraction should be a mandatory subject of collective bargaining - was a foregone conclusion. So was the injunction forcing the Minnesota Twins to honor the final year of their Metrodome lease. So were the congressional hearings focused on baseball's antitrust exemption.

The only logical conclusion must be that Selig and baseball management intended for the situation to play out this way.

Hearings on the grievance filed by the union are set to resume this week. The players figure to prevail, since the owners were required by the just-expired labor agreement to finalize the 2002 schedule in July, but the owners are hoping that the decision preserves their right to contract by 2003 without consulting the union.

If that happens, they will gain additional leverage in the current collective bargaining talks, during which they hope to make dramatic changes in the industry's economic structure. If they lose on both counts, they are no worse off than they were before the contraction announcement.

That appears to be the best explanation for why Selig is playing out the string. If he admits before the arbitrator's ruling that contraction in 2002 is impossible, the players union likely would withdraw the grievance and retain the option of modifying it and filing it again if the owners try to follow through with contraction before next season.

The possibility of a new grievance would blunt whatever leverage ownership hopes to gain with the continuing threat of contraction.

Union officials invariably give the same answer when asked about ownership labor strategy - pointing out the folly of trying to figure out what anyone in management is thinking. But no one seriously believes that Selig and the owners didn't think things through when they announced contraction two days after one of the most exciting World Series in history.

The owners apparently intended to announce the plan during the September quarterly meeting that was canceled because of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, though that still would have left a relatively short time frame to wade through the legal and political morass the announcement was certain to create.

By the time it was socially acceptable to begin talking about it again, the postseason was in progress and Selig did not want to rain on what was a very uplifting October for baseball fans. The only options left to him were scrapping the idea until 2003 or cutting into the afterglow of the Arizona Diamondbacks' thrilling victory over the New York Yankees in the Fall Classic.

Selig obviously determined that the only way to derive maximum impact from the threat of contraction was to announce it as soon as possible after the World Series and let the chips fall where everyone knew they would fall. That kept open the possibility that the local and state governments in Minnesota would agree to build the Twins a new stadium.

More evidence that contraction was as much a bargaining ploy as a signal of Major League Baseball's supposedly desperate economic situation: Selig refused to confirm which teams would be contracted, leaving room for the announcement to put a scare into several municipalities with stadium issues.

Of course, the proof was in Selig's recent comments about the improving possibility of baseball returning to Washington. Baseball officials have since tried to temper the excitement generated when Selig called Washington "the prime candidate" for relocation, but there appears to be little doubt that the machinations of this strange off-season all point in one direction - toward creating a landscape that gives ownership enough clout to finally negotiate a favorable labor contract with the players union.

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