NEW YORK -- Baseball's latest labor dispute moved into the late innings yesterday, when a contentious, three-hour bargaining session did nothing to dissuade the Major League Baseball Players Association from setting a strike deadline when its executive board meets by conference call this afternoon.
Ownership negotiator Richard Ravitch formally -- and forcefully -- rejected a union contract proposal that he said would raise the players' share of revenue as much as $700 million during the next four years. Union director Donald Fehr disputed the owners' calculations and repeated the players' philosophical resistance to any form of salary cap.
What does all this mean? That little has changed since the owners first took their proposal for a revenue-based salary cap to the players and that nothing has happened to diminish the possibility of a strike.
"The fact is that we're really quite far apart at this point," said Ravitch, who met with Fehr and 11 players at the Intercontinental Hotel in Manhattan.
The players and owners are so polarized, in fact, that there appears to be little room for compromise. The owners offered a 50-50 split of revenues in their salary-cap proposal and hoped to persuade the players to bargain over the money instead of the salary-cap concept. The players responded with a proposal that addressed working conditions and compensation only under the old system.
In essence, they are still on two different planets, and time is running short.
L "We rejected their proposal for two reasons," Ravitch said.
"First, we costed it out and, in our judgment, the proposal will cost $700 million. It moves in the opposite direction the game has to go. Second, we rejected it because it was not only unresponsive to the problems of the small-and large-market clubs, it accentuated the burden on small-market clubs."
Though the players' proposal may serve only the purpose of establishing an opposing position at the bargaining table, the owners used it to begin a public-relations offensive in advance of the union vote on a strike deadline.
Major League Baseball put out a two-page news release outlining the players' proposal and assigning monetary values to each component. Then Ravitch attacked the union for ignoring the economic necessity of a drastically restructured players compensation system.
"Let me say I regret the fact we have no response to our concerns about fixing the costs of the game," Ravitch said.
"We have made it abundantly clear to the union that the world is different. The game has changed, and so has its costs."
Fehr accused the owners of being disingenuous with their calculations, and pressed the owners to get their corporate house in order before coming to the players for what could be a $1 billion concession.
"Dick Ravitch has said that 19 of the 28 clubs are in the red," Fehr said.
"I think someone ought to press him to list those 19 clubs, because I think you'll be surprised at some of the teams he puts on that list. But if they are losing money, we think you have to identify the causes.
"There has been no chief executive officer running the game since Fay Vincent was forced out. The game is attempting to operate the industry by committee. There is nobody running this business. Isn't it more appropriate, before talking about salary caps and growing together, isn't it more logical to appoint a chief operating officer and present strategies to increase those revenues?"
They could go back and forth like that until October.
The union leadership will meet early today to come up with a consensus on which of several possible strike dates to recommend to the player representatives during the noon conference call.
Fehr said earlier this week that the tenor of yesterday's meeting might have a bearing on that decision, but the confrontational session did not seem to change the nature of the judgment the player reps will have to make.
If they are convinced that the owners will wait them out no matter what, they could set a strike date in late September and collect almost all their 1994 salaries before going home.
Striking the postseason would cost the owners an estimated $140,000,000, but it could backfire if the punitive nature of the work stoppage further solidifies management's hard-line position.
It seems more reasonable to set a mid-August deadline, which still would leave time to salvage the season if a compromise were reached soon after the schedule were interrupted.
"Dick has said over and over that a work stoppage occurs only when one side underestimates the other," Fehr said.
"I think he's wrong. Sometimes, a work stoppage occurs because somebody wants one or because somebody has no choice.
"From what we've been hearing over the last 18 months, the players would have to be fools not to take the owners seriously."
The union apparently has completed its team-by-team strike authorization vote, and it should come as no surprise that there was little dissent among the players. Fehr said that there were only a handful of negative votes, and that most of those were objections to the procedure by which a strike date would go into effect.
History suggests that the negotiations will not even get serious until a strike deadline is close at hand, which may be another argument for setting it sooner rather than later.