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Seeing hidden cap, players appear ready to head for legal fight

RYE BROOK, N.Y. — RYE BROOK, N.Y. -- The baseball labor dispute edged closer to a declared impasse last night, as it became clear that the players would respond negatively to the latest ownership contract proposal.

Management officials had expressed optimism Sunday that their modified taxation plan could open the door to a negotiated settlement in baseball's protracted labor dispute, but that was before the complicated proposal was picked apart by union economists.

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The Major League Baseball Players Association studied the proposal overnight and concluded that it was a salary cap in sheep's clothing. The union's skeptical response -- and lack of a quick counterproposal -- left little doubt that the next phase in the collective bargaining process will

be played out before the National Labor Relations Board.

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The owners figure to exercise their right to impose new working conditions Thursday and the players are certain to challenge the declaration of an impasse with a claim that management did not bargain in good faith. How long that will take and how it will play out is anybody's guess.

The ownership bargaining unit appears willing to pursue that course, but the individual owners also appear to grasp the gravity -- and possible risks -- of a declared impasse.

"There will only be a deal when we negotiate a deal," said Atlanta Braves president Stan Kasten. "There won't be day-to-day baseball as we know it until that happens."

Nevertheless, there apparently are plenty of teams willing to risk months or even years of litigation for the potential rewards that would spring from the successful imposition of a ceiling on player payrolls.

There is a real question whether the declaration of an impasse will hold up, but the owners appear confident that they can survive a union counterattack that will be waged on both legal and governmental fronts.

"Let's just say that we haven't done anything without the advice of counsel and leave it at that," Kasten said.

The latest management counterproposal calls for a flat 4.64 percent tax on all payrolls and a more restrictive secondary tax that would kick in if total player compensation exceeds 50 percent of total revenues. The owners concede that the system would create a drag on salaries, but insist it would be significantly less restrictive than their previous taxation proposal.

Union officials are not persuaded. They are willing to allow a flat payroll tax, but will not sign onto any taxation vehicle that applies direct downward pressure on total payrolls.

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"Have we changed our perception that it works the same as a salary cap?" said union associate general counsel Eugene Orza. "The answer is no."

Colorado Rockies owner Jerry McMorris obviously disagreed with that characterization, claiming that the new plan would have only 25 to 35 percent the restrictive impact on payrolls that the previous management taxation plan would have created.

"You have the right to do more payroll," McMorris said. "When you have a cap, you hit the cap and you're done."

The owners tried to tailor their latest offer to the framework that the players used to create the proposal they presented Saturday, but the ownership tax proposal differs in several fundamental ways. Most important, the management plan calls for the elimination of salary arbitration in exchange for four-year restricted free agency.

The salary cap proposal that the owners figure to implement Thursday also eliminates salary arbitration and downgrades a long list of noneconomic union benefits.

The concept is so offensive to the players that they could carry the strike into the 1995 season. They also may protest by boycotting attempts by ownership to negotiate individual contracts.



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