Ballplayers, owners far from accord FOUR DAYS AND COUNTING

NEW YORK — NEW YORK -- The countdown continues. The Great Baseball Strike of 1994 is scheduled to begin in four days, and there is no sign of any thaw in the frozen collective bargaining negotiations between the players and owners.

For this stare-down to end without baseball's eighth work stoppage in the past 22 years, somebody will have to blink in a hurry, but the nature of the issues -- and the ideological barriers to a settlement -- makes a compromise seem unlikely and a lengthy strike appear almost inevitable.


Does it have to be this way? Perhaps not, but the philosophical differences between the players and owners and the tremendous mistrust that has developed between the Major League Baseball Players Association and the bargaining arm of Major League Baseball make it almost impossible for them to work toward a settlement.

Take last week, for instance. The owners held back $7.8 million in pension funds that traditionally are deposited for the players as payment for their participation in the All-Star Game. Management credibility further was diminished by the revelation that the 19 teams projected to lose money this year include two perennial cash cows, the Los Angeles Dodgers and Chicago White Sox. (Yesterday, baseball's acting commissioner, Bud Selig, reduced that number to 12 to 14 teams.)


The collective-bargaining chemistry is not helped by a union that breeds fierce loyalty among its membership by playing every management slight for maximum public relations advantage. The result is a polarized negotiating environment that can lead in only one direction -- the picket line.

The owners have legitimate financial concerns, but the notion that the Dodgers are losing money is not going to play in Peoria. The Dodgers got the sweetheart deal of the century when they moved to Los Angeles nearly 40 years ago, so they own their stadium and do not have to share their ticket revenue with anyone. The team draws 3 million fans per year and has strong JTC local broadcast revenues, so if it is really losing money, the players have a right to ask the $100 million question:

Whose fault is that?

Union director Donald Fehr has built his case against a salary cap around such issues. He long has portrayed the salary-cap proposal as a method by which the players are forced to pay for the sins of bad management. That argument is not totally unassailable, but it was good enough to force the owners' negotiator, Richard Ravitch, away from using financial distress as the main justification for a salary cap.

"No one denies that these negotiations are about money," Mr. Ravitch said repeatedly last week. "We do not have to prove poverty to negotiate for the cost of labor."

Score a debating point for Mr. Fehr, but no one can dismiss the owners' problems. The union's steadfast defense of free-market economics is not entirely logical; baseball's salary scale has been artificially accelerated by salary arbitration.

Salaries a runaway train

The current player compensation system is a runaway train that was put on track by smart union negotiators in the early stages of the free-agent era. Salary arbitration awards are based on comparative salaries and statistics, but they tend to exploit the contractual excesses of management. As a result, the average player salary doubles about every three years and now stands at $1.2 million.


Mr. Fehr would counter with statistics that show the average career is relatively brief, but his appeal to the public that the players just are looking for the same things as the average working stiff doesn't figure to find many sympathetic ears.

"The thing I say to fans is, what if it was your son and his career was going to last an average of five years?" Mr. Fehr said. "Wouldn't you want him to have the right to earn what he is worth and have the right to play in his hometown if that's what he wanted to do?"

Many fans would reply that they would accept a certain amount of market restriction for a $1.2 million average salary, $70,000 per year in licensing bonuses, complete health care and a pension plan that will pay a vested player $115,000 per year for life when he turns 55.

Nevertheless, the players' right to try to keep what they legally bargained for is not in question. The owners had almost everything their way until the courts struck down baseball's reserve clause in 1975. The players are steadfast in their desire to maintain the status quo (at the very least), but they probably will have to make some major concessions to avert a lengthy strike and avoid the unsavory prospect of a declared impasse by the owners during the off-season.

There is no common ground at the moment, because each side's position is tied to a completely different economic system. Neither is willing to make the ideological leap necessary to negotiate on the other's turf.

The owners have taken the hard-line position that there will be no settlement without some system that fixes the cost of player salaries, and the only system they have proposed involves the salary cap that is so offensive to the players.


That salary cap was the second step in a two-stage process that began with the owners' internal compromise on revenue sharing. Large-market owners agreed to subsidize struggling, small-market clubs, but only if there was a salary cap.

That linkage might be what most has polarized the negotiations. The link between revenue sharing and the salary cap has been perceived -- correctly -- by the union as an attempt to make the players pay back the large-market clubs in advance for the money that eventually will go to the small-market teams.

Playing with numbers

What has resulted is a statistical shell game in which each side trots out numbers that appear to support its contentions, while little happens at the bargaining table to close the tremendous divide that soon will shut down the season.

"Sharing revenue on a percentage basis is common throughout the entertainment industry," Mr. Ravitch said. "It is also done in the NFL and the NBA, and they are looking at it for the NHL."

Mr. Ravitch concedes that such a sweeping change in the player compensation system will be painful for everyone. He says that the economic conditions facing the game warrant that dramatic change. The players do not. End of conversation.