Concession was winner

Analysis: It took some give and take, but reaching the finish line was a victory for both sides in the baseball labor dispute.

The Baseball Settlement

August 31, 2002|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK -- Lost among the economic complexities of baseball's brand new labor agreement was a simple fact that probably had as much to do with preventing the industry's ninth consecutive work stoppage as any revenue-sharing number or luxury tax threshold.

They got it.

They finally got it.

The owners realized that they didn't have to force the Major League Baseball Players Association to turn the clock back to 1972 to get a contract that would enhance competitive balance and solve some of their economic problems.

The players finally figured out that reaching a true compromise that put reasonable limits on the growth of payrolls was better than losing a war of attrition with disaffected fans.

It'll be years before anyone knows whether the enhanced revenue-sharing system and the new luxury tax will really improve the product that Major League Baseball is trying to sell, but the players and owners -- perhaps unwittingly -- improved that product dramatically just by showing fans that they both were willing to make major concessions to keep the 2002 season intact.

"There was a lot of give and take," baseball commissioner Bud Selig said. "Both sides accommodated the other in this agreement. This agreement is in the best interests of the game for a myriad of reasons."

First and foremost among those reasons is that it is done.

Selig has taken a lot of criticism for the direction he has steered the game since he became commissioner, some of it warranted. He was part of the hard-line ownership group that tried to strong-arm the union by implementing a hard salary cap in 1994, a decision that contributed to one of the most damaging work stoppages in the history of American professional sports.

He apparently learned from that, because the owners came forth this time with a less demanding agenda, asking instead for the enhancements in revenue sharing and the institution of a new luxury tax that would have a less dramatic impact on player payrolls.

"There were significant differences, don't get me wrong," union associate general counsel Gene Orza said yesterday, "but the key to this negotiation is that the clubs did not take a provocative or authoritarian stance. It was the one distinguishing feature."

There were some others. The union, which had shrugged off ownership's claims of financial hardship for years, also brought a new attitude to the bargaining table, though it probably was more the result of current events than any revelation about baseball economics.

Executive director Donald Fehr still felt a strong obligation to blunt the creeping incrementalism so apparent in ownership's new strategy, but he seemed to recognize that the environment was not right for another stubborn exercise in union obstructionism -- even if the players really didn't believe all of management's claims of impending financial disaster.

Perhaps those claims were exaggerated. It's possible that Selig ran a yearlong bluff with his tales of pending team bankruptcies and his enthusiasm for baseball's ill-fated 2002 contraction plan. It didn't matter.

Fehr and his staff of bright lieutenants could see that the only way to win this particular labor war was to find a graceful way out of it.

The world had changed dramatically since the debacle of 1994-1995. The tragic events of last Sept. 11 remain fresh in the national consciousness, the economy is sputtering and the nation is involved in the ongoing war on terrorism. It didn't take a bunch of labor geniuses to figure out that the problems of a few hundred millionaire baseball players weren't going to evoke an outpouring of public sympathy in this crazy mixed-up world.

Fehr said over and over that he could not let the disapproval of the fans affect the way he represented the interests of the players, but he couldn't entirely ignore the growing disaffection that was evident in the stands and on the streets.

In previous disputes, the fans had generally proclaimed a plague on both sides, but all they saw this year was an industry ready to fold two franchises and a work force with an average salary of $2.4 million per year.

It might be tempting to proclaim that the owners finally won one. They certainly have been outflanked more times than not over the years and they exacted greater concessions than in any previous negotiated settlement, but the rush to define a winner and a loser should be confined to the playing field.

"There is a tendency to try and draw an analogy to the game on the field ... to determine who won and who lost," Fehr said yesterday, "but in collective bargaining, the only way you win is to get a deal done."

They finally got it.

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