The Great Baseball Strike of 1994 is only in its second week, but time already is running out on the regular-season schedule.
There may be six weeks left until the scheduled start of baseball's new eight-team postseason tournament, but the season would have to resume much earlier than that to rekindle the excitement of the stretch run and retain the integrity of the six division races.
What is the point of no return?
No one is willing to say quite yet, because no one wants to concede that the 11-day-old work stoppage might stretch into September or beyond, but it will become a relevant question if the collective bargaining negotiations remain stalled for another week or two.
"From what I've absorbed, I would say that you've got to get back around the first week of September," Orioles owner Peter Angelos said. "If it goes to, say, the middle of September and there are only two weeks left, forget it."
Major League Baseball has not formulated a contingency plan, and a MLB spokesman said that plans for resuming the season would be subject to negotiation within the framework of the current collective bargaining dispute.
It isn't just a question of when the players and owners reach a settlement. The longer the strike lasts, the more time the players will need to get into condition to play. After the 50-day strike in 1981, they had a week to get into shape. Even if this work stoppage is much shorter, the players probably would need at least four or five days to reassemble and work out.
"I think you could probably look at the '81 strike to determine that," Orioles general manager Roland Hemond said. "When you go to spring training, the pitchers and catchers come early, but the position players seem to be ready in four or five days -- and that's after laying off the whole winter."
So what's the point of no return? Probably around Sept. 10, when each team could train for several days and still have at least 15 games to play. It wouldn't be pretty, because there may be serious scheduling inequities among contending teams, but that would allow time for
everyone to get back into a normal routine before the playoffs.
"How many games would be legitimate?" Orioles manager Johnny Oates said. "I really don't know. My only hope is that there are some."
The Orioles rolled up to the strike deadline with five victories in their last six games, but they were still 2 1/2 games behind the Cleveland Indians in the hunt for the American League wild-card berth. If the strike ended in time to play the final two weeks of the season, they still would have an outside chance to make the playoffs.
Oates said he isn't worried about conditioning time. Most players work out year-round, so it seems unlikely that they would ignore the possibility of a quick settlement and allow themselves to get out of shape.
"I think it is the same scenario as the wintertime," Oates said. "I can't say that everyone will be working out, but I know that a big majority will be working out somewhere, somehow."
The outcome of the season could depend on it, especially if the labor dispute ended with just a couple of weeks' worth of games left on the schedule. The tight division races in the AL Central, AL West and NL Central could turn on the conditioning of one starting pitcher.
"I think hitters would be able to perform in two or three days," Oates said. "The starting pitching would be the thing, and overall pitching depth could be very important. Even if you have four or five good starting pitchers, if you miss three weeks, they may only be able to go four or five innings. The depth of your bullpen would be very important."
The Orioles actually might benefit from the makeup of the schedule, provided the season resumes in time to complete the last few weeks of play. Beginning today, the schedule had them playing 13 straight games against the division-leading Chicago White Sox and the late-blooming Kansas City Royals. From Sept. 9 through the end of the season, they have only two series remaining against contending teams.
The Royals and White Sox, who could be prominent in the wild-card race, may be in an even better position. The only series each would play against a team with a winning record during the final 3 1/2 weeks on the schedule would be against each other on the final weekend of the season.
The schedule benefits them because they moved over from the weak AL West in the new six-division format and still are treated like West teams on the balanced schedule.
"First of all, you can throw out the word fairness," Oates said. "I believe it's going to be pot luck. If you end up with a good draw, more power to you. There's going to be no way to make any games up, so you're just going to have to take what comes."
The situation was different in 1981, because the strike started in early June and was over in time to install a split-season format that put every team back in contention. No doubt, every effort would be made to salvage the stretch run, but it would have to be done in the context of the existing division races.
Even if the negotiations passed the point of no return to the regular-season schedule, the postseason tournament probably would be salvaged if a settlement were reached in late September.
The owners figure to weather the public outrage over an October surprise to recoup the $140 million in television revenues that would spring from the two playoff tiers and the World Series.
BASEBALL STRIKE DAY 11
News of the day
Federal mediators will meet with representatives of the players and owners today and tomorrow before full-scale negotiations are expected to resume Wednesday.
Fourteen games were canceled yesterday. The total number missed is 131.
"Nobody likes the fact that they're on strike, but the impact here is an incredible amount of interest."
Little League vice president Steve Keener, as World Series gets under way today in Williamsport, Pa.
Today in the minors
-! * Reading at Bowie, 7:05 p.m.