PITTSBURGH -- The Major League Baseball Players Association did not set a strike date yesterday, but the midseason meeting of the union's executive board sparked an exchange of unfriendly rhetoric that left little reason to hope baseball's labor dispute can be resolved peacefully.
The meeting was held a few blocks from Three Rivers Stadium, where the crowd attending the public workout for tonight's 65th All-Star Game was oblivious to the storm clouds gathering around the game.
MLBPA director Donald Fehr met with player representatives from each of the 28 major-league clubs to analyze the owners' salary cap proposal and discuss the pros and cons of possible strike dates. None was chosen, but Fehr gave every indication that the players would authorize a strike if the owners persisted in their attempt to create a revenue-based salary cap.
Across town, ownership negotiator Richard Ravitch met with reporters at the All-Star headquarters hotel and made it equally clear that the owners would accept nothing less than a dramatic restructuring of the player compensation system.
None of this came as a surprise, but the combative tone of both Fehr and Ravitch created an atmosphere of confrontation that doesn't bode well for Thursday's resumption of collective bargaining in New York.
"This is a great year for baseball," Fehr said. "There has been a lot of attendance. A lot of players are having incredible years statistically. There will be a new round of playoffs. It ought to be an exciting time for everyone. Instead, we hear a series of comments about the condition of the game and a proposal by the owners that is very reminiscent of 1990, 1985 and, in some ways, 1980 and '81.
"As a result, we don't have an agreement yet, and we'll have to work very hard to find one in a very short time if we are going to avert another in a series of work stoppages."
The ownership proposal calls for a salary cap based on a 50-50 split of total revenues. The players union estimates that salaries account for 58 percent of the game's revenues and see the proposal as an ownership attempt to wipe out gains they have made in several previous labor confrontations.
Cincinnati Reds player representative Rob Dibble summed up the position of the union when he was asked if the players would consider a salary cap in any form.
"Never," Dibble said. "No salary cap whatsoever."
Orioles alternate player rep Jim Poole was less emphatic, but he said he heard nothing during the 4 1/2 -hour meeting that gave him reason to be optimistic about the possibility of a settlement.
"Absolutely not," Poole said, "but we have not made our proposal for them to chew on. I think there was a unanimous feeling that a salary cap -- if it remains in their proposal -- will be a hindrance to a settlement."
"We don't really feel it is in the best interests of baseball in terms of competitive balance," Cone said. "We feel that we have good competitive balance right now. It [a salary cap] hurt the NBA."
Ravitch was just as adamant about the owners' desire to achieve "cost certainty" with a limit on payrolls. He would not rule out the likelihood that management would declare an impasse in the negotiations after the season and try to impose new working conditions unilaterally.
That's why the union is considering a pre-emptive strike that would interrupt the season -- perhaps as soon as early August -- and pressure the owners to compromise while there still is time to salvage the playoffs and World Series.
"I think most owners believe it will be an act of self-immolation on the part of the players if they go on strike for an extended period," Ravitch said. "I think there is the illusion that the owners will fold like they have every other time, but I can assure that is not going to happen."
So where to now? Fehr and Ravitch have scheduled a meeting Thursday in New York, where the union is expected to counter with a proposal that asks for minor concessions in several areas. The players probably would settle for the status quo without complaint, but they have to ask for something to establish a bargaining position.
The next step will be to complete the team-by-team strike authorization vote that union leaders called for last week, but Fehr said yesterday that about 75 percent of the vote is in and that it is almost unanimously in favor of authorizing him to give the owners a negotiating deadline.
Fehr indicated that a strike date could be set within the next couple of weeks, which probably rules out the possibility of a work stoppage before mid-August.
If the players go on strike and the negotiations stretch through the end of the season, the owners may declare an impasse and impose a salary cap without the consent of the union. If that happens, the players could contest the action through the National Labor Relations Board or carry the strike into the 1995 season.
Ravitch declined to rule out that option, even though it might irreparably fracture an already strained labor/management relationship.
"Baseball cannot and will not continue under the present economic system," he said. "If we are at genuine impasse, I see no reason whatsoever that we should forgo any remedy available to us under the law."