Questions hit Selig from all angles

Responding to fans on Net, commissioner `happy' that strike date hasn't been set

July 10, 2002|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

MILWAUKEE - Maybe in a perfect world, baseball commissioner Bud Selig would have gotten to enjoy his hometown All-Star Game without addressing the divisive issues that face his sport.

Not in this baseball world.

Selig spent part of the afternoon before the 73rd All-Star Game fielding questions from near and far in a modern-day town hall meeting that allowed baseball fans from all over the world to log in on the Internet.

Their concerns were predicable, as were many of Selig's answers. Baseball's problems are not new, but the industry has reached a critical juncture in its attempt to enhance competitive balance, increase revenues and protect the integrity of the game in the face of a troublesome steroid controversy.

The commissioner got one break. He didn't have to answer any questions about a union strike date, because the Major League Baseball Players Association chose not to set one during its strategy summit Monday near Chicago.

"I'm happy that they didn't set a strike date," Selig said. "As I have often said, this has to be settled at the table. The only way that we're going to solve the problems that exist is at the table, and hopefully starting Thursday when we get back at it, and in the coming weeks, [we can] make progress toward an agreement."

So far, there is little reason for optimism. The owners, claiming huge losses that threaten the existence of up to eight teams, are asking for a new economic system that combines heavy revenue sharing with a large tax on the biggest-spending franchises. The players have balked at the luxury tax and favor a much more modest revenue-sharing program.

The players union did not set a strike date, but left open the possibility that one could be set quickly if there is no progress after negotiations resume. The magnitude of baseball's stated problems and the history of baseball's labor relationship suggest that it might take a lengthy work stoppage to achieve significant changes in the next collective bargaining agreement, but Selig says that does not have to be the case.

"Stan Kasten [Atlanta Braves and Atlanta Hawks president] likes to remind me on a daily basis that we are not asking half as much as two of the other sports already have," Selig said. "But I am an optimist by nature, and I really believe that the players association and I believe that Don [Fehr, union chief] shares the same sentiments I do, that if you can avoid a work stoppage, you want to do that."

Management hoped to reduce the likelihood of a players strike by stopping short of demanding a hard salary cap - which was the issue that fueled the lengthy work stoppage of 1994-1995 - but the players clearly view the proposed 50 percent luxury tax on excess payroll over $98 million a team as a defacto cap that will put a major drag on salary growth.

Even Fehr said Monday that the situation is beginning to remind him of 1994-1995, which can't be a good sign for those who fear another shutdown.

"Nobody understands the heartache of a work stoppage more than I do," Selig said. "It is a nightmare. We've had eight of those now. On the other hand, as I've said to the owners often, I'm on the horns of a very difficult dilemma. A work stoppage is everything people say it is and the status quo is also very, very serious, and poses very serious problems. So that's a dilemma we have to work our way around."

The situation is further complicated by the steroid scandal, which has prompted ownership to include a comprehensive drug-testing program in its proposal - a proposal the union will be reluctant to embrace.

"I believe we need to test," Selig said. "It's a subject for collective bargaining. It think it's the health and welfare of the players that should be the only issue, nothing else."

Selig said that the owners also remain committed to contraction, even though the Minnesota Twins and Montreal Expos - the two teams targeted for elimination - are having successful seasons.

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