At last, a labor agreement even Orioles should love

October 25, 2006|By RICK MAESE

St. Louis -- At 1 a.m. on Saturday, there was just one final wrinkle in baseball's new labor agreement. Players wanted to raise the luxury tax to some exorbitant amount that probably wouldn't have penalized a single team, not even the New York Yankees.

They didn't get their way, the sanctity of the luxury tax was upheld and four days later, when union leaders and the Major League Baseball brain trust gathered to announce the new collective bargaining agreement, they had nothing but love to share.

The differences in the new collective-bargaining agreement might seem subtle, but it sure looks like this new deal picks up right where the last one left off - taking care of small- and mid-market teams and limiting the excuses teams like the Orioles can throw out each October.

The unprecedented economic success enjoyed by Major League Baseball in recent years has translated to competitive parity on the playing field. Baseball officials smiled wide when they pointed out that no matter who wins this year's World Series, there will have been seven different champs in the past seven seasons.

"I think this agreement encourages that," commissioner Bud Selig said. "And I'm very confident that it will produce the same results that we're all concerned about and that I certainly am - not only economic growth, but parity."

Parity is an important word because baseball's success is largely dependent on fans entering each spring thinking their team might still be playing in the fall. More than ever, teams in smaller markets - ahem, specifically a certain team in Baltimore - should be able to field competitive teams.

"If you have the energy and the ability, this will enable us to do better," said Larry Dolan, owner of the Cleveland Indians.

On the surface, Dolan's team isn't a whole lot different from the Orioles - both trying to compete without overspending, both trying to build a farm system, both owned by attorneys.

The Indians this year featured an Opening Day payroll of $56 million - $16.5 million less than the Orioles and $138 million less than the Yankees. Dolan says the new agreement should help teams that invest in their young talent, and he says there's no reason small-market teams can't be competitive. (Of course, his team isn't playing in the same division as the Yankees and Boston Red Sox.)

Dolan also thinks some teams are starting to realize that you don't have to overspend to field a good team. "The better way is the way most of the other teams are doing it," he said.

If an owner like Dolan, who spent nearly $17 million below the median payroll this year, can be so hopeful about this new deal, it's hard to figure out how a team like the Orioles won't also benefit. Just like the 2002 agreement, a major goal of this new one is to level the playing field - economically and competitively.

Dolan didn't mention any names but acknowledged that the new deal wouldn't completely eliminate the "bellyaching" from some owners.

(For the record, yes, Peter Angelos did play a role in the labor talks, though sources say he wasn't nearly as involved as he was when the last CBA was struck four years ago.)

So how does the new agreement benefit a team like the Orioles? A few ways, actually.

Most important, it retains the generous revenue sharing, which divides about one-third of locally generated money. Baseball is financially very healthy, having produced $5.2 billion in revenue last year (more than quadruple what it pulled in 14 years ago). Under the revenue-sharing plan, the teams split $323 million this year.

"We believe modifying the revenue sharing the way we have, you're going to get a lot of interest in individual clubs in doing what they can to improve their own performance," said Donald Fehr, the union leader, "and that will show up both in the bottom line and we think in what they do with players, as well as on the field."

The luxury tax also remains intact. The threshold goes from $136.5 million this year to $148 million next season and then increases 4.7 percent annually before topping out at $178 million in 2011.

What pleases owners like Dolan is the restructuring of the amateur draft rules. If a team fails to sign its first- or second-round pick, it will receive the same pick in the next year's draft. (So under these new terms, the Orioles would have been compensated with an extra first-round pick in the 2005 draft after they failed to sign Wade Townsend in 2004.)

"I believe that the small- and medium-market teams today are in far better and different shape than they were five years ago," Selig said, "and if you go back a decade, it is a stunning difference."

Across the board, owners seem pretty happy. During a conference call over the weekend, those who negotiated the deal filled in the other owners.

"What we get back is, `Thank you, thank you, thank you,' " Dolan said.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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