NEW YORK - Washing away all of the optimism that flowed from the union's decision Monday not to set a strike date, baseball's labor negotiators ran into a reef in their talks last night, almost ensuring that the union will set an Aug. 30 strike date tomorrow.
As negotiators for the owners and the players prepared for a third bargaining session of the day, one of them suggested that it was impossible to predict whether they could get to an agreement before the union's executive board meets via conference call tomorrow.
"It's much too fluid," the negotiator said, describing the situation generally but meaning the bargaining over a luxury tax specifically.
But not much more than an hour later, the negotiators left the third session far apart on the structure, the tax rate and the tax threshold involved in the tax on payrolls that the owners have demanded as a way of regulating player salaries.
"Occasionally in this process you have bumps in the road," said Rob Manfred, the clubs' chief labor lawyer. "Today would probably be a bump in the road."
Manfred declined to elaborate, and union officials had no comment. But it was clear what had occurred.
In the day's first session, the union presented a new tax proposal. The second session dealt with licensing issues, but it was the third, or early evening session, that was viewed as being critical to the chances for an agreement on the tax, because the clubs were going to offer a counterproposal. Though details were not available, the counterproposal was obviously not to the union's liking.
Manfred, who only the day before had said he thought a deal was possible within a few days, said management negotiators were prepared to "move the process forward" yesterday, but the reason for his optimism of the past couple of weeks seemed to have evaporated.
Donald Fehr, the union leader, had not echoed Manfred's claims of optimism, though he spoke Monday about a willingness to see if a few more days of talks could bring the sides closer to a deal and avert the need to establish a strike date.
The union's executive board had been prepared to set a date at its meeting in Chicago on Monday, but management officials asked union officials to delay that action, saying it could undermine negotiations.
Now there seems to be no reason for the players to delay any longer. The union board is scheduled to have a conference call tomorrow, and when Fehr reports the developments, the players are expected to set a date.