ROSEMONT, Ill. -- Major-league owners let another deadline go by without carrying out their threat to declare an impasse in baseball's protracted labor dispute, voting instead to authorize unilateral implementation of their salary cap proposal if an agreement is not reached in the next week.
The owners are calling it an olive branch, a last-ditch effort to convince the Major League Baseball Players Association that implementation is the last resort rather than the master plan. The players union accepted it as such, but there is room to wonder if the owners simply were not ready to take a dramatic and dangerous step that is certain to escalate an already bitter dispute.
"Today's decision represents a genuine desire to reach an agreement at the bargaining table," said acting commissioner Bud Selig. "We have said all along that the only rational way is to negotiate an agreement at the bargaining table, not through legislation or in the courts."
It was the second time that the owners have pushed back the deadline for implementation. They originally were scheduled to vote on implementation Dec. 5, but put off their full ownership meeting until yesterday. Representatives of the 28 clubs met for four hours at the O'Hare Airport Hilton Hotel and chose to give their Executive Council the authority to impose the salary cap as soon as next Thursday if there is no movement in the negotiations.
That is not a firm deadline, but Selig and other members of the ownership bargaining unit tried to make it clear that they could not wait much longer to get back to the business of putting together their 1995 rosters.
"The clubs have seven days to make an appeal for common sense," Selig said. "If the union wants to make a deal, we're going to give it more time."
The delay was contingent on the union agreeing to push back two important operational deadlines. If the MLBPA had refused to move back the once-postponed Dec. 17 arbitration deadline and the Dec. 20 deadline for tendering contracts, the salary cap would have gone into effect at 11:59 tonight, but union officials welcomed the delay.
"Without agreeing that there is an impasse or that they have the right to declare an impasse, I'm glad they are doing this," said union director Donald Fehr. "It's positive that they are willing to negotiate. I can't tell you what it will lead to.
"An olive branch? I hope it turns out to be one."
No firm date was set for the resumption of bargaining, but Fehr said that special mediator William J. Usery probably would bring the negotiating teams back together Monday in Washington.
Both sides agree that it will be difficult to bridge the ideological gap that has kept the negotiations in near-gridlock since the owners presented their first salary cap proposal June 14. The owners still are calling for cost control. The players still are resistant to anything that significantly restricts the growth of salaries.
If there is any reason for hope, it stemmed from the candid discussions that took place in the waning hours of the six-day negotiating summit that concluded Wednesday night in Rye Brook, N.Y.
The management bargaining committee recommended the one-week delay because there appeared to be a change in the tenor of the negotiations. There were rumors of some clandestine contact between union and management negotiators after talks broke off, but it could not be confirmed.
"We [the ownership negotiating team] met again this morning, and for various reasons, the committee concluded unanimously to make this recommendation," said bargaining committee chairman John Harrington. "We felt we were making progress. The philosophical gap is so large that it is hard to make significant movement. . . . It was done with the idea of opening one more window of opportunity."
There was little doubt that the full ownership would vote to support the committee's recommendation, though it required 21 votes for approval. Resistance to the management bargaining strategy has been isolated. Orioles owner Peter Angelos was a vocal dissident early in the negotiations, but only he, Blue Jays president Paul Beeston and Mets CEO Fred Wilpon cast dissenting votes.
Angelos chose not to comment about what went on in the meeting, but a management source said that Angelos appealed to the other owners to hold back on the declaration of impasse and continue to talk without the threat of implementation hanging over the negotiations.
Wilpon also raised questions about the ownership strategy, and brought up concerns about the possible impact that two pending National Labor Relations Board complaints could have on the legitimacy of a declared impasse.
The Blue Jays also voted no, at least in part because the ownership threat to use replacement players would put the club in direct opposition to anti-strikebreaker laws in the Canadian province of Ontario.
The wording of the resolution left open the possibility of further postponements, but several owners attempted to cast the one-week window as the final opportunity to avert an impasse.
"We are really pushing it," said Atlanta Braves president Stan Kasten. "We need to get on with it."
The owners continued to prepare for the possibility of implementation. Ownership representatives briefed club executives and general managers earlier in the day on the ramifications of an implemented settlement and the possibility that replacement players will have to be recruited to fill out strike-ravaged rosters.
"It's an uncertain time," said Montreal Expos vice president Bill Stoneman, "but as soon as we get the uncertainty behind us, the industry will be much better for it."
ORIOLES SPRING TRAINING SCHEDULE
The Orioles again will play their home spring training games at Al Lang Stadium in St. Petersburg, Fla.
Spring camp is scheduled to open Feb. 16, when pitchers and catchers report to Sarasota's Twin Lakes Park, where the Orioles will spend the first two weeks before moving to St. Petersburg's Huggins-Stengel Complex on March 2. The rest of the club reports to Sarasota on Feb. 22.
Ticket prices will remain $8 for box seats and $7 for reserved seats. Fans can purchase Orioles spring training home-game tickets by phone using MasterCard or VISA at (314) 421-2400 or write to Orioles Spring Training Tickets, P.O. Box 8777, St. Louis, Mo., 63101.
The Florida Suncoast Dome ticket office in Tampa will start selling tickets Jan. 16 and the ticket office at Al Lang Stadium will open Feb. 27.
3 -- Philadelphia at Clearwater, 1:05; 4 -- St. Louis at St. Petersburg, 1:05; 5 -- St. Louis, 1:05; 6 -- Boston, 1:05; 6 -- Boston (ss) at Fort Myers, 1:05; 7 -- Chicago White Sox at Sarasota, 7:05; 8 -- Philadelphia at Clearwater, 1:05; 9 -- Minnesota at Fort Myers, 1:05; 10 -- Kansas City at Baseball City, 1:05; 11 -- Boston, 1:05;
12 -- Cleveland at Winter Haven, 1:05; 13 -- Toronto (ss), 1:05; 14 -- Minnesota at Fort Myers, 1:05; 15 -- Kansas City, 1:05; 16 -- New York Yankees, 7:05; 17 -- St. Louis, 1:05; 18 -- Texas, 1:05; 19 -- Chicago White Sox at Sarasota, 1:05; 21 -- Chicago White Sox, 7:05; 22 -- Pittsburgh at Bradenton, 1:05;
22 -- Texas at Port Charlotte, 7:05; 23 -- Philadelphia, 7:05; 24 -- Pittsburgh, 1:05; 25 -- Minnesota at Fort Myers, 1:05; 26 -- Texas, 1:05; 27 -- Boston at Fort Myers, 1:05; 28 -- St. Louis, 1:05; 29 -- Minnesota, 1:05; 30 -- Toronto at Dunedin, 12:05.
1 -- Philadelphia at Camden Yards, 1:35; 2 -- Colorado at Camden Yards, 1:35.