Mission impossible? Ravitch warns players, owners of financial woes

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Richard Ravitch is on a mission. He spent last week in Florida talking to reporters, talking to players and trying to convince the world that baseball ownership is not crying wolf again.

Ravitch, who heads Major League Baseball's Player Relations Committee, has the task of negotiating a collective-bargaining agreement with the players union. And the emphasis is on the word "new." The owners have made it obvious that come next year, they will not start a new season with the old economic problems.

The challenge for Ravitch is threefold. He must devise a drastically new player compensation system. He must convince the owners that it is the only way to address their mutual financial concerns. Then he must sell it to the players. Sounds easy, doesn't it?

Right now, he is making the rounds and trying to make it clear that something has to be done to keep baseball from entering a period of tremendous economic instability.

"I've told them basically that I am very concerned that revenues could go down so significantly in 1994 as to leave baseball without adequate funding to meet all its obligations," Ravitch said.

The union rightly could argue that such claims have been made before, but Ravitch has some startling numbers to back up his argument. Major League Baseball, he says, already has $2 billion in player contract obligations for the future -- a future in which television revenues are expected to decline.

"The owners already have gotten 192 players signed for 1994 for almost $500 million. That's more than baseball's entire payroll in 1989. Already there are 90 players signed for 1995 for a total of $360 million."

Does this mean that the game is headed for bankruptcy? Ravitch won't go quite that far. But he does see the competitive balance of the game tilting dramatically in favor of the large-market teams.

"I know that's been argued before," he said. "People use Pittsburgh [as a counter-argument]. Pittsburgh is a small-market club, but it had the eighth-highest payroll and lost money last year. In 1989, on average, the lowest-revenue club would have spent 60 percent of its gross revenues on player compensation. That same team in 1993 will spend 80 percent of the gross in compensation. There is no way you can pay 80 percent of your gross. The competitive balance for small-market teams is a thing of the past."

Ravitch has conducted joint meetings with union director Don Fehr in hopes of convincing the players that a salary cap and revenue-sharing plan is in their best interests. He feels that the environment may be right for change, but he concedes that the owners may have to get tough to achieve it.

"I honestly believe that Don Fehr understands that I am not fabricating the facts," he said. "It's too early to tell whether the attitude is changing, but I'll tell you this: If the owners are as unified as I believe they will be, it will be a different negotiation this time around."

Fehr isn't sure that anything has changed. He has been involved in baseball's labor/management relationship for nearly two decades, and he isn't ready to trumpet a new age of cooperation. He met with the Orioles players yesterday and prepared them for the worst.

"Their idea of a partnership consists entirely of 'the players should take less money,' " Fehr said. "That's not going to happen. There is so much more money coming in now than there was even four years ago. If they are losing money the way they say they are, you have to ask yourself, what's wrong with them. . . . They want the players to be the responsible ones with a salary cap. It's hard to buy into that."

Collective bargaining probably will not begin in earnest until late summer. Ravitch hopes to have a revenue-sharing plan devised and accepted by ownership by then, but even that may be an uphill battle.

Bo has Bell worried

When the Chicago White Sox decided to exercise their option on Bo Jackson, it left designated hitter George Bell feeling insecure. But general manager Ron Scheuler said last week that Jackson is the one who has to find a place in the everyday lineup.

"Right now, he's not in the lineup," Scheuler said. "He'll have to earn it. Frank Thomas is our first baseman and George Bell is our DH. George seems to think that he's in competition with Bo, but he isn't. George has a role here."

Jackson could fit into the lineup at a number of positions, finding two or three starts a week backing up Bell and veteran outfielders Tim Raines and Ellis Burks. That is, if his comeback from hip-replacement surgery remains on track.

Bo knows that if he can play regularly, he'll be in the lineup.

"I never doubted myself," he said, "but I didn't expect to have the kind of spring I've had . . . and I didn't expect to have the ability to run to first base in 4.3 seconds."

Quote of the week

Knuckleballer Charlie Hough is looking forward to taking the mound for the Florida Marlins' first regular-season game against the Los Angeles Dodgers, and he couldn't resist the temptation to level an early broadside at a team he used to play for.

"I just hope they use the team they used last year," he said.

Making his pitch

New York Yankees right-hander Bob Wickman made a big statement with six no-hit innings against the Atlanta Braves last week, but that doesn't mean anyone was listening.

"I feel I've earned a job," he said after his spring ERA fell to 0.60.

It would appear so, especially after his 6-1 performance in eight major-league starts last year, but the Yankees may not have a place for him in the rotation. The first three spots are set (Jim Abbott, Jimmy Key and Melido Perez). The next two spots could go to Sam Militello and Scott Kamieniecki.

Wickman, despite his solid stats, still is considered a long shot.

Trivia quiz

In 1992, Brady Anderson became the fourth Orioles player to hit at least 20 home runs and steal at least 20 bases in the same season. Without hitting the books, name the other three.

Saberhagen contract revisited

New York Mets right-hander Bret Saberhagen may not be the best pitcher in baseball anymore, but he signed one of the most creative contract extensions Friday. The three-year package included a $2.25 million signing bonus, $3.05 million for 1994, $4.05 million for 1995 and $4.3 million for 1996. It also calls for a club option on 1997 at either $5.25 million or $5.50 million -- depending on how many innings he pitches in 1996 -- and deferred payments of $250,000 per year from the time he is 40 years old until he reaches 65. After that, Social Security kicks in.

Rumor mill

The San Diego Padres are shopping again. They have been in contact with the Orioles recently about the availability of outfielder Luis Mercedes and they are thought to be one of three teams (the Seattle Mariners and Montreal Expos are the others) interested in New York Yankees infielder Andy Stankiewicz. The Yankees would much rather trade Mike Gallego, but he has not been the subject of much interest.

The Yankees may be shifting gears as spring training draws to a close. They have been so buoyed by the promising performance of the pitching staff that they may consider trading a pitcher to get more offensive help. Early in spring, it looked as if they were going to trade a hitter to get pitching help.

Tigers tribulations

The Tigers are struggling so badly that they have become a laughingstock in their own manager's office. After a loss Thursday that gave them an 0-15-1 record in their previous 16 games, Sparky Anderson had this to say about his pitching staff:

"We're going to have to train some of our guys to wind up and not throw the ball. Something would still happen. It just wouldn't be as bad."

Pitching isn't the only area where the Tigers have come up short. Through Thursday, they had made 34 errors in 24 games and first baseman Cecil Fielder was batting .113 (6-for-53) with just one extra-base hit. Fielder has been so frustrated, he is taking batting tips from Anderson, who was a career .218 hitter at the major-league level.

Trivia answer

You didn't have to be Bill James to figure this one out, but how many of us can be Bill James anyway? In 1969, Paul Blair turned in the first 20-20 season for the Orioles when he hit 26 homers and stole 20 bases. The next to do it was Don Baylor, who hit 25 homers and stole 32 bases in 1975. Reggie Jackson followed that up the next season with a 27-homer, 28-stolen base performance. Anderson created his own 20-50 club when he hit 21 home runs and stole 53 bases last year.

They are driven

The Orioles have two players who rank among the top five American League RBI leaders over the past 10 years. Here are the top five:

Cal Ripken ... ... ... 921

Don Mattingly .. .. .. 912

Dave Winfield .. .. .. 910

Harold Baines .. .. .. 871

Kent Hrbek ... ... ... 851

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