Players envision chaotic off-season if owners declare impasse


NEW YORK -- The 1994 baseball season appears to be over. If that wasn't obvious when formal negotiations broke down on Friday, it seemed clear after a series of small group meetings yesterday produced nothing more than a sense that the next few months could become a legal and logistical nightmare.

Union officials are awaiting word from acting commissioner Bud Selig that the rest of the season and the postseason officially have been canceled, but they have begun looking ahead to an off-season that figures to be chaotic.

"This is new territory," union director Don Fehr said. "The only thing I'm sure of -- there is not going to be an agreement on the basis that the clubs are insisting on."

The owners apparently are banking that there will be. They are expected to declare an impasse in the negotiations and implement their salary cap proposal unilaterally. What happens at that point is anybody's guess.

Fehr would not get specific, but he confirmed that the union already is mobilizing to do legal warfare on several fronts. The players recently filed an unfair labor practice complaint against the owners for withholding payment of $7.8 million in All-Star pension funds and are preparing grievances to recover lost salary for players who were called up from the minor leagues in September.

That's just the beginning. The players are expected to challenge ownership's off-season implementation of new work rules in a number of ways, from an appeal to the National Labor Relations Board to litigation over the rights of players with multi-year contracts. They also hope to persuade Congress to take away Major League Baseball's antitrust exemption.

The antitrust issue is about to surface again, with hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee beginning Sept. 22. Fehr said he will testify if invited. No doubt, he will be invited and he will make a passionate case for lifting the exemption and giving the players more legal avenues to fight the salary cap.

"The notion that Congress is not involved is wrong," Fehr said yesterday. "They are perpetuating this situation. I hope they will look at the issue."

If the cap is imposed, the players are expected to remain on strike and reject contract offers, although the union has no way of knowing how many players will break ranks as spring training approaches. There may be some, but a union official said yesterday that he was confident that the union could effectively maintain the strike until midseason of next year.

"It would be utter chaos," Fehr said recently. "I don't know what would happen for sure. It would be resisted by the players individually and collectively any way they can. Some might sign contracts under protest. Some might sign and not show up. I just don't know."

There even have been mutterings of a move to start a new league with players who do not have multi-year contracts, but that kind of speculation has surfaced every time there has been an extended work stoppage.

The logistics of starting a new league would be so daunting that it seems unlikely that it would be considered seriously.

Several ownership representatives also met with Fehr in a separate meeting yesterday, but nothing happened to raise hope for a settlement in the next few days.

"We were reassured that they really need a salary cap," Fehr said. "I no longer expect anything . . . . Every signal from the owners that I have gotten is that they never want to play baseball again."

Selig went home soon after Friday's abortive bargaining session, promising to have an announcement on the fate of the season early this week.

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