WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Two months ago, the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service stepped into baseball's long and bitter labor dispute, only to withdraw when it became apparent that neither side was willing to take any significant step toward a compromise.
That process started all over again yesterday, when special mediator William J. Usery brought the bargaining teams together for a 90-minute meeting at Washington's International Club.
The meeting, the first joint session in 40 days, was intended to set some ground rules and lay the foundation for further negotiations, so no revelations were expected. But a troubling question hung over the process:
Is this progress or deja vu?
"It's almost as if we started all over again," said Kansas City Royals pitcher David Cone. "It reminds me a lot of the first meeting we had with [mediation service director] John Calhoun Wells.
"There has been a long layoff. It's nice to be back starting again . . . whenever we start. My question was, 'What is the difference going to be with a new mediator?' "
The official stance of each bargaining unit was positive and mildly optimistic, which also was reminiscent of that first abortive attempt at mediation.
"Obviously, we're delighted with the process," said ownership negotiator Richard Ravitch. "We believe in it, and we're committed to it.
"We have always felt that ultimately this would have to be resolved at the bargaining table."
Usery, a former Secretary of Labor who is considered one of the nation's top private mediators, has spent the past several days trying to get up to speed on the issues that need to be resolved.
That process is not complete, but he already seems to have a feel for the difficult task he has accepted.
"This is a journey that will not get over in a day or a week," said Usery, who mediated the NFL's 44-day preseason strike in 1974, "but we feel if we do get good-faith bargaining from both sides, we can reach an agreement."
He was appointed by President Clinton on Friday to mediate the dispute and met briefly with both sides after the White House ceremony.
He met separately with each bargaining unit before yesterday's joint session, but said that he still is not prepared to wade into the dispute.
"I owe it to the parties to understand their positions," he said. "I could not say that I understand fully their feelings, but I think I generally understand them.
"When you believe you have positions that are very strong and people believe in the position, it's difficult."
The meeting yesterday was relatively brief, and both bargaining teams headed for the airport afterward. No further meetings were scheduled, but Usery said that he might set up another joint session early next week -- probably in Washington.
"The purpose of this meeting, as I understand it, was to begin the process and talk about what we do next," said union director Donald Fehr. "That took place."
Fehr also expressed guarded optimism, deferring to Usery's long, distinguished record in labor relations, but he tried to temper any expectation of a dramatic change in the direction of the negotiations.
"It is a day-by-day process," Fehr said. "I think if anybody tries to predict how long it's going to take or where it's going to go, that is not productive."
The meeting was attended by a large number of ownership representatives, including Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, Atlanta Braves executives Stan Kasten and Bill Bartholomay, Milwaukee Brewers vice president Wendy Selig-Prieb, Colorado Rockies owner Jerry McMorris, Boston Red Sox general partner John Harrington, Chicago Cubs president Andy MacPhail and Houston Astros CEO Drayton McLane.
"It was a frank discussion," said McMorris. "Some ground rules got laid for where we go from here."
The players were represented by Cone, Cleveland Indians second baseman Carlos Baerga, Braves pitcher Tom Glavine, White Sox pitcher Scott Sanderson, Oakland Athletics catcher Terry Steinbach and Pittsburgh Pirates second baseman Jay Bell.
There has been no substantive change in the position of either side since the players went on strike on Aug. 12, and there has been no indication that either side is any more willing to compromise today.
The Clinton administration obviously hopes that the arrival of an influential mediator will break the ice.
But Usery is under no illusions about the difficult road ahead.
"It obviously is a tough situation," he said. "If it wasn't, it would have been solved by now."