NEW YORK -- The Major League Baseball Players Association has decided to strike sooner rather than later, setting Aug. 12 as the deadline for a work stoppage that could wipe out the last 52 days of the season and baseball's newly expanded postseason tournament.
Union director Donald Fehr made the announcement late yesterday afternoon at the Intercontinental Hotel, where union and management negotiators had concluded a contentious meeting Wednesday without making progress toward a new labor agreement. The union considered several later dates, including one in late September that would wipe out the postseason, but chose to force the negotiations into high gear early enough for both sides to reconsider their positions.
The executive board of the players association met by conference call at noon yesterday and voted unanimously to set a strike date that leaves two weeks to bridge the wide philosophical gap between the union and management positions.
"This date is a last resort," said Mr. Fehr. "No one wants to play more than the players do. We are in a position where the owners continue to insist on an arbitrary salary cap. We are convinced that it will destroy free agency, damage competitive balance and benefit the large-market clubs.
"Hopefully, by doing this, it will focus the negotiations and perhaps provide some urgency if the owners are interested in reaching an agreement so we get it done without interrupting the season."
The only immediate effect of the strike date was to escalate the war of words that has been simmering since the owners reopened the collective bargaining agreement in December 1992.
"Let me begin by saying how much I regret how the union seems to have such a disregard for the fans," said owners' negotiator Richard Ravitch. "The owners gave up their greatest weapon when they would have had the greatest leverage, to protect the fans. The union obviously doesn't care."
Mr. Ravitch was referring to the agreement reached last year in which the owners agreed to give up their right to lock the players out of spring training. If that was a show of good faith, however, it also bought time for the owners to develop the revenue-sharing plan that led to the salary-cap proposal that has frozen the negotiations.
The owners have proposed a revenue-based cap that calls for a 50-50 split of revenues, reduces the major-league service requirement for free agency from six years to four and eliminates salary arbitration. The players' proposal calls for a raise in the minimum salary, a decrease in the service time for arbitration eligibility and several lesser concessions.
Though the owners have guaranteed that the players' total compensation will not drop below current levels, the proposed 50-50 split would represent a significant drop in the portion of revenue that currently goes toward salaries and benefits -- 58 percent.
The union views the latest proposal as another in a series of attempts to limit the free-agent market and force the players to pay the price for the financial sins of baseball management. That's why there was little dissent when the union recently took a team-by-team strike authorization vote, and that's why the executive board voted unanimously to approve the strike deadline. The last games would be played Aug. 11.
To this point, neither side has shown any willingness to consider the other's proposal, and Mr. Ravitch left little reason for hope that the deadline would force the owners to reconsider their position.
"We will not have a new collective bargaining agreement that does not fix the cost of labor," he said. "I'm flexible about how you do that."
Jim Poole, Oriole assistant player representative, said: "I think there are enough owners who understand that we will not give in on a salary cap. . . . It will, if not kill free agency, then severely hinder."
The players have enjoyed tremendous income growth under the present player compensation system. Mr. Ravitch says that a dramatic economic restructuring is necessary for the long-term health of the industry, but he has not been successful in his attempts to convey that to the players.
"They would have to show that there are real concerns . . . that there is no alternative to a salary cap," Mr. Fehr said. "They have not made their case."
"They're trying to convince us how they're losing money," said Charles Nagy, the Cleveland Indian player representative. "We just can't fathom it. Baseball's been booming . . . and they're still crying, 'We're losing money.' "
So what happens? Mr. Fehr and Mr. Ravitch have met periodically, but the schedule should intensify considerably. The Aug. 12 date leaves time to save the season after the walkout begins.
"The 12th is the earliest possible date where we can get something resolved," Mr. Nagy said. "Players really got frustrated. They [the owners] need to get on the ball and get serious."
"They're the ones that took 18 months to come up with a proposal. They kind of backed us into a corner. That's the only reason we set a strike date: to light a fire under them and get them going."
Still, the move doesn't figure to engender public support.
"With the good teams, the owners are just getting richer," said Mark Golub, 48, of Cleveland during yesterday's Orioles-Indians doubleheader at Camden Yards.