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Deadline closing in again

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- This may sound vaguely familiar, but an ownership-imposed deadline for settling baseball's protracted labor dispute is just hours away, and there is no sign that the players and owners are close to a settlement.

If there is no agreement by 12:01 a.m. tomorrow morning, the owners claim they will declare an impasse and impose their Nov. 17 salary cap proposal. This time, it appears, they really mean it.

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"That is what we're planning on doing," said Atlanta Braves president Stan Kasten. "This can't go on forever."

Of course, it will be the third time that the two sides have bargained up to an impasse deadline. Special mediator William J. Usery convinced the owners to push back the original Dec. 5 implementation vote to Dec. 15, and the owners decided on their own to delay implementation for another week -- ostensibly out of the goodness of their hearts.

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Now, the sport stands at the threshold of a future so clouded that neither side can predict with any certainty what will happen. The doomsday scenario that some have been forecasting since June will become reality, unless something dramatic and unexpected happens during the final day of negotiations.

"We feel that we haven't gotten anywhere in the last week," said Philadelphia Phillies executive vice president David Montgomery. "Why would we extend?"

Though time already was running short yesterday, the players and owners did not meet for a joint bargaining session, instead meeting among themselves while Usery shuttled back and forth between the Capital Hilton and the ownership law office a few blocks away.

Colorado Rockies owner Jerry McMorris and Major League Baseball Players Association director Donald Fehr had met one-on-one the night before in what appeared to be a last-ditch attempt to find a way out of the complicated and bitter dispute. They made slight progress on some peripheral issues, but the obstacle that has separated them for the past six months was still firmly in place.

Cost control. The owners want a salary cap or a two-tiered taxation system that has the same kind of effect. The players have indicated that they will accept a modest tax on payrolls, but nothing that would place significant downward pressure on payrolls. Nothing has changed.

The owners and players can't even agree on who delivered the last counterproposal. The union presented the ownership team with a written document on Monday that outlined some of the concepts that were proposed verbally last week in Rye Brook, N.Y., but the owners were unwilling to acknowledge that it was a legitimate proposal.

"Apparently, there is some confusion whether we have received an offer," Kasten said. "We have not. We did receive in writing the remarks that the union gave us in Rye Brook. Back there, we broke off without getting a response from them on our core issue, a secondary tax."

In a related development, the National Labor Relations Board filed a seven-page complaint accusing ownership of unfair labor practices and scheduled a March 14 hearing before an administrative law judge in New York. It is the complaint that deals with ownership's failure to pay $7.8 million in All-Star Game revenues that traditionally go into the union health and benefits fund.

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The players are looking for help from any government official who will entertain them. Players and a union official met with Speaker of the House designate Newt Gingrich earlier this week and apparently appealed to him for help in getting baseball's anti-trust exemption lifted.

"There was a meeting earlier this week," Fehr said. "Three players and a staff person met with him, explained the situation and were encouraged by the response. That's all I can say about that right now."



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