Progress aside, road to labor deal far off


July 28, 2002|By Peter Schmuck

The tug of war between the players and owners has taken on a more conciliatory tone over the past few days, perhaps because some small progress finally is being made toward a new collective bargaining agreement.

That's good news for baseball fans, who have become weary of the constant bickering that has characterized the sport's labor relationship for the past 30 years, but there's a long way to go before they can rest easy that another work stoppage will be averted.

The movement has been in the area of revenue sharing, one of the core issues that seemed to be pushing the players toward another strike. No agreement has been reached on how much local and national revenue will be pooled to promote better competitive balance, but at least negotiators have reached the point where they can agree on how far they are apart.

It's a start.

Whatever optimism that has been generated inside the two bargaining committees, however, has to be tempered by the ticklish issue that lies ahead - ownership's proposed 50 percent luxury tax on payroll in excess of $98 million per team.

Union officials still are philosophically opposed to any luxury tax, though they agreed to a lesser tax plan in the previous collective bargaining agreement. They view the tax as a de facto salary cap that will discourage rich teams from spending money rather than transfer revenue to help poorer teams buy quality talent.

They're right on that count. The luxury tax clearly is an attempt to reign in the New York Yankees and a couple of other large-market clubs capable of driving the bidding in the free-agent market.

What the union must keep in mind, however, is that ownership's luxury tax is not necessarily the worst-case scenario in this labor confrontation.

Management is under no obligation to negotiate down from that position. They have the option of taking the luxury tax off the table and replacing it with a true salary cap if the union chooses to strike over the issue, and don't think they will hesitate to do that if a work stoppage wipes out the postseason.

Federal labor law prohibits the owners from implementing a settlement that is more advantageous to them than the most recent collective bargaining proposal. The law also requires the owners to bargain in good faith over any proposal before they can declare an impasse in negotiations. But management can change to a salary cap proposal at any time, and could unilaterally implement it if they then bargain to a legal impasse.

It is not unusual for a company to offer union employees a sweeter deal early in negotiations as an incentive to reach a quick settlement, then retrench after that proposal has been rejected.

No one is saying it publicly, but that possible scenario might turn out to be the deterrent that prevents the players from interrupting the 2002 season or the postseason.

There is sentiment among some owners that a players' strike should be the catalyst for a once-and-for-all solution to the industry's economic problems.

Union officials have to be aware of that, and have to wonder if ownership's luxury tax is onerous enough to justify a strike by a work force with an average salary approaching $2.4 million.

Here's a guess: The players will set a strike date and bargain right up to it, but the owners will get their luxury tax (with some minor concessions) and a work stoppage will be avoided.

O's standing pat?

The Orioles will be fielding a few phone calls as Wednesday's deadline approaches for trading players without passing them through waivers, but don't hold your breath waiting for a big deal.

Pitchers Scott Erickson and Sidney Ponson are attractive commodities in a trade market that already has been tapped for several quality starting pitchers, but the financial limitations that have been placed on Orioles vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift by owner Peter Angelos make a trade involving one of them very unlikely.

If the Orioles aren't willing to add to their relatively modest payroll, then there is little impetus to make a trade involving a starting pitcher, since it would simply create a vacancy on the pitching staff that would have to be filled during the off-season - perhaps at a higher price.

Pulling the rug out

Florida Marlins manager Jeff Torborg has been left with a serious morale problem by the trades that sent outfielder Cliff Floyd to the Expos and pitcher Ryan Dempster to the Reds. The team responded by going into an eight-loss tailspin that took the Marlins out of the wild-card race, and now a lot of players are just hoping to be on the next plane out of town.

"The thing that really gets to this team, the thing that is really disturbing is that we felt like we were ready to make a move," Torborg said. "They had come up together and we thought [this season] that we were ready to roll. I felt that way two weeks ago. Then bam! All of a sudden you lose eight in a row, and you say, `What happened?' "

Cash squeeze play

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