Walkout talk just part of the script


May 19, 2002|By PETER SCHMUCK

So, when's it going to be?

The All-Star Game?

The second week of August?

The postseason?

Baseball suddenly is awash in scary reports that the players will go on strike again during the second half of the season or, perhaps, on Oct. 1 to wipe out the playoffs and World Series. This is just what the game needs, more reasons for baseball fans to start thinking about football.

The facts are a little less ominous. The players and owners are engaged in another battle over the revenue pie, and everything that has happened in the past few months is part of a routine exercise in labor/management bargaining tactics.

The owners want severe restrictions on spending and a significant expansion of revenue sharing. The union is willing to give some on the revenue sharing, but have balked at a heavy luxury tax on the top-spending clubs. There is a wide economic and philosophical gap to bridge before a settlement can be achieved, but no one is near a decision to go on strike or stage a lockout.

The Major League Baseball Players Association is doing what it is required to do at this point in the negotiations. Union officials are meeting periodically with player representatives to map out strategy and present bargaining contingencies. One of those contingencies is a work stoppage. Stop the presses.

Anyone who has been paying attention to the troubled labor relationship between the players and owners over the past 30 years or so should have figured out the routine by now. The players leak potential strike dates in an attempt to put pressure on ownership to be more forthcoming in the negotiations.

The only thing that's different about this year is that everyone is all too well aware of the consequences of a decision to strike in-season.

It took years for the industry to recover from the work stoppage that cut short the 1994 season and forced the cancellation of the World Series. Now, with attendance down during the first six weeks of an intriguing season, there are rumblings of another such disaster?

Don't believe it. The players would love to tweak commissioner Bud Selig by stiffing his All-Star party in Milwaukee, but union director Donald Fehr knows that an All-Star boycott would be viewed as a vindictive act that would do more collateral damage to the fans than direct damage to Major League Baseball. The same goes for striking the postseason, even though there is true leverage in that threat.

There may well be a work stoppage before this labor war is over, but the players aren't going to offer themselves up as villains by going on strike this year. The union has a history of being pro-active in situations like this, but look for them to let the owners make the first move this time.

Management will seek to implement a settlement after the end of the season, which will cause a temporary disruption in the free-agent market. The players likely will boycott spring training if a compromise is not reached by then.

The players eventually will accept revenue sharing at about 40 percent and a stiff luxury tax on payrolls over $110 million. The owners will delay contraction and relocate the Expos. Everybody will talk about forging a new relationship before the next set of negotiations.

Haven't we all been here before?

A-Rod has his say

Rangers superstar Alex Rodriguez said this week that the fans would forgive the players and owners for another work stoppage if it results in a long-term labor agreement that improves the game for everyone.

"I think if you walked up to a fan and said, `Listen, tickets will decrease by 20 percent, you're going to have more of a competitive balance, your team is really going to have a sincere chance of winning a World Series.'

"If you can give them five or six good reasons, I think the common fan would say, `OK, maybe that's a reason to stop or go to the negotiating table and come up with remedies,' " Rodriguez said.

He might be right, but baseball's $252 million man sounds like a proponent of the ownership position instead of the union's stance.

"Do we want to stand here and not stop work and continue like this for the next five or 10 years?" he said. "Sooner or later, we're going to have to sit down and address these problems."

Schilling on mission

It's hard to imagine Diamondbacks pitching ace Curt Schilling could be any better than he was during last year's 22-6 performance (2.98 ERA, 293 strikeouts), but he has been even more overpowering through his first nine starts of 2002.

The former Orioles right-hander entered yesterday's scheduled start with an 8-1 record, a 2.86 ERA and 95 strikeouts. That's 21 more strikeouts than he had in his first nine starts of 2001.

"It's just nine starts. It's a quarter of the season," Schilling said, dismissing the early analysis. But teammates see a more determined, more focused pitcher.

"He's on a mission," said outfielder Luis Gonzalez. "It's exciting. I think he wants to smell that hardware [Cy Young Award] at the end of the season."

Tough talk

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