WASHINGTON -- The players won the sympathies of Congress yesterday, testifying against baseball's 72-year-old exemption from federal antitrust laws. The big question is whether congressional support will translate into action, and if // so, if it will be in time to save the 1995 season.
Legislation is not likely to be voted on until Congress reconvenes in January, said Rep. Jack Brooks, D-Texas, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. Given the long history of hearings about baseball's exemption followed by Congress' failure to repeal it, action even then could be considered a long shot.
But coming on the heels of the first canceled World Series in 90 years, this Congress might be different. Brooks, who presided ,, over the hearings, wanted the owners in attendance to know he means business.
"They may be underestimating Congress' ability to respond. We are not mediators; we are policy makers -- but policy makers with long memories," said Brooks, one of numerous Congress members who spoke against the owners. "Baseball may have run away from its obligations to the fans of the country for a few months, but they can't run away from Congress for long."
For the first time, Brooks voiced support for a bill introduced by Reps. Mike Synar, D-Okla., and Jim Bunning, R-Ky., that repeals the exemption if the owners declare an impasse and unilaterally impose a salary cap.
Under the current exemption, the players cannot sue the owners for imposing a salary cap. The players can either stay on strike or file an unfair labor practices charge with the National Labor Relations Board.
The players, eight of whom appeared at the hearings, said if they could file a federal lawsuit they would go back to work immediately.
"We would play if you give us that level playing field," said Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Orel Hershiser.
Acting commissioner Bud Selig said removing part of the exemption will not save the 1995 season. "Next year will be saved only when the parties reach a compromise at the bargaining table," he said.
Selig was flanked by seven other owners. Despite an invitation from Selig, outspoken Orioles owner Peter Angelos was not among them.
"There was no particular role for me to play there, and I was very busy in my [law] office," said Angelos, a less than fervent supporter of Selig.
Selig was not at a loss for words, even without Angelos. He said the exemption -- the only one in the four major professional sports -- protects franchise stability and the relationship between the major and minor leagues.
But Hershiser pointed out that the Synar-Bunning legislation would only affect the current labor situation. "It's not a shotgun blast," Hershiser said. "It's more of a rifle shot at the major-league agreement only."
The owners also contended that antitrust law has nothing to do with labor law. They cited an NFL case that would force the union to decertify if it wants to sue the owners.
Donald Fehr, executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, denied that his union would have to decertify, but he said he would advise the union to take that step if he could sue the owners.
Fehr said the threat of a lawsuit would force the owners to put a better offer on the table.
He isn't counting on legislative success, however. The antitrust exemption dates back to 1922, and has been upheld in challenges in 1953 and 1972.
Even earlier this year, on June 23, a bill proposed by Sen. Howard Metzenbaum, D-Ohio, was defeated 10-7 by the Judiciary Committee. Just last week, Metzenbaum tried to reintroduce a similar bill on the Senate floor, but Sen. James Exon, D-Neb., killed it.
This time Congress will begin challenging the exemption in the House. Even if the Synar-Bunning bill does not become law, it could affect the 1995 season in two ways:
First, the threat of the bill could persuade the owners to take the salary cap off the table and start making concessions.
Second, the players could steadfastly refuse to negotiate until the bill becomes law. Brooks' pronouncement that the bill
probably will not be voted on until the next congressional session could jeopardize the negotiations through spring training. "How much negotiating is going to go on between now and the next Congress?" Boston Red Sox owner John Harrington said.
For the time being, Selig is going to ignore what happens in Congress. "We can't wait for anybody," he said.
Fehr said no agreement will be made in the near future, anyway. "Unlike Mr. Selig, I am not even remotely optimistic there will be an agreement in the short term," he said.
If Brooks has anything to say about it, the labor negotiations will not mar another season.
"Don't think for a minute that Congress will forget the sorry spectacle we have witnessed in the summer of 1994," he said.