FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- The 28 major-league owners finally took the first step toward the economic restructuring of baseball last night when they ended a lengthy stalemate and agreed unanimously on a plan to redistribute revenue.
There was no progress, however, on the search for a new commissioner. A 2 1/2 -hour session that lasted until 2:30 a.m. ended with no recommendation, although Northwestern University president Arnold Weber and U.S. Olympic Committee executive director Harvey Schiller remain the front-runners.
"It'll be discussed more by the group tomorrow [today]," interim commissioner Bud Selig said when the meeting broke up. Hours earlier, he was clearly more upbeat discussing the approval of the long-awaited revenue-sharing plan, designed to help struggling small-market teams remain competitive in the face of spiraling costs and dwindling receipts.
"In my judgment, this has been a remarkable and historic day," Selig said when the accord was reached at 9:27 p.m. "The major-league clubs passed a unique and historic revenue-sharing plan, 28-0. Tonight was the result of thousands of hours of negotiations with Dick Ravitch and the Player Relations Committee -- and many owners participated in a historic revenue-sharing plan."
The owners would not release details of the plan, but it appeared to be a compromise between the modified PRC plan that came up one vote short of approval two weeks ago in Chicago and a large-revenue-team plan that garnered only 11 votes at that meeting. Somehow, Ravitch came away with a unanimous vote on an issue that had held the game hostage for several months.
"I think it is critically important that it was passed by a 28-0 vote," said Ravitch, "because it means all the teams have the same commitment and objective -- to redistribute revenue between the clubs, maintain competitive balance and put the owners in a position to proffer to the union an economic partnership that includes a salary cap."
The way Ravitch sees it, the plan will allow the most economically disadvantaged teams to draw on a pool of money contributed by the richest clubs, the formula based on economic factors that will be re-evaluated annually. That means that a team that paid into the fund one year conceivably could draw on it the next.
"This plan is revenue and expense specific, not team specific," Ravitch said, "and it will be applied annually. It is not an agreement in which club X will pay. Clubs whose profiles meet certain characteristics are eligible to receive funds and other clubs that meet certain economic characteristics pay in."
No dollar figures were discussed, but the total pool is expected ++ to be between $50 million and $60 million per year when -- and if -- the plan is fully in effect.
The Orioles almost certainly would be one of the teams required to contribute heavily to the fund.
Of course, revenue sharing is only half the battle. The owners only agreed to pursue a sharing accord because they viewed it as the first step toward a revenue-based salary cap. The decision to redistribute their income was made unilaterally, but the imposition of a salary cap will not be possible without the cooperation of the players association.
"This agreement will take effect when we get a Basic Agreement with a salary cap ingredient," Ravitch said. "It will last at least as long as the Basic Agreement and will transfer enough money to the small-market clubs so that every club will be financially able to meet the obligation to the players . . . because any cap also will have a salary floor."
There have been no assurances from the union that the players will be amenable to any ownership proposal that limits salaries, but Ravitch finally is in a position to create a specific agenda for full-scale negotiations on a new labor contract.
It also moves the owners and players a large step closer to another labor showdown, though both sides have agreed to keep the terms of the recently expired Basic Agreement in place through Opening Day.
Players association director Donald Fehr did not exactly join the owners in the round of applause they gave themselves after the agreement. He said from his New York home he has yet to see evidence of any economic partnership.
"I don't really have a reaction," he said. "It took Dick [Ravitch] a long time and he's entitled to a big raise. He has deliberately kept us in the dark and excluded us from this process. At some point, if he cares, I suppose they'll let us in on the details."
Fehr has long maintained that the union doesn't care how the owners distribute revenue, and he said nothing last night to indicate a willingness to cooperate on a salary cap.
"We didn't care as long as it didn't adversely affect the free market," Fehr said. "Now, they want the union's cooperation in adversely affecting the market. That's what a salary cap is."
If the agreement doesn't guarantee cooperation from the players union, it does leave the owners free to grapple with the issue that originally was expected to headline this meeting -- finding a commissioner.
If the Executive Council can agree on a candidate, it would likely present him to the full ownership later today for discussion and a possible vote. However, it seems unlikely the process will move that quickly.
In fact, speculation remains strong that the commissionership will remain under the custodial care of Selig, the Milwaukee Brewers owner, even though that might not meet with the approval of a congressional committee examining baseball's antitrust exemption.
Selig continues to insist that he does not want the job, but the lack of progress during Monday night's seven-hour Executive Council session and last night's 2 1/2 -hour meeting only made it seem more likely he'll be asked to stay on.
One member of the Executive Council said yesterday that the discussion on Monday night never focused on a single "strong" candidate, though search committee chairman Bill Bartholomay had promised that a recommendation would be made. If that is true, it seems highly unlikely that the search for a commissioner can be concluded today.
Ravitch, however, indicated a lot could be accomplished today. He said last night that the owners would approve a resolution that would end all of the infighting over local television revenues and probably would address a restructuring plan that redefines the role of commissioner.