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Next 6 months could bruise baseball's integrity for years

Where does baseball go from here? The owners have implemented their salary cap and the players have promised a legal onslaught heretofore unseen in the history of professional sports, but there still are more questions than answers in the early hours of the game's new economic era.

The next few steps are predictable. The union will file a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, charging that management did not bargain in good faith. The owners will begin the internal transition to a free-market-unfriendly economy that they hope will reverse years of spiraling payroll costs.

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Then what?

Special mediator William J. Usery said late Thursday night that he hoped the negotiating phase of the collective bargaining process is not over. So did Colorado Rockies owner Jerry McMorris. But ownership's impasse declaration clearly has raised the level of animosity between the players and owners to new heights at a time when it didn't seem possible that their relationship could get any worse.

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"This implementation is just another step in what continues to be the collective bargaining process," McMorris said. "I hope and think that the process will go along -- if anything at an increased rate of speed."

McMorris is one of the less militant members of an ownership cadre that has carried baseball into an economic revolution that already has left the image of the game severely wounded, but that comment belied a management strategy that has gone unstated throughout the lengthy labor dispute.

Apparently, this dispute has been as much about redistributing power as it has been about redistributing wealth. The owners were intent on wresting back control of the game after nearly 20 years in retreat, and they seem willing to use any measure to succeed. McMorris obviously expects that implementation will frighten the players right back to the bargaining table, just as baseball's Executive Council appears confident that the prospect of replacement players will scare them back to work this spring.

"They'll try to open camps because there won't be an agreement before then," said union associate general counsel Gene Orza, "then they'll invite players to come in and hope that they do. There will be people who they'll call players, but no one will be fooled."

If the owners have underestimated the union, the next six months could put the biggest bruise on baseball's integrity since the Black Sox Scandal of 1919. The prospect of replacement players is one thing. The reality of scab baseball is something else altogether. Baseball has backed itself into a corner, and the owners almost have to go through with it now.

This is where acting commissioner Bud Selig usually delivers the ownership mantra -- "The short-term pain is worth the long-term gain" -- but the damage to the game no longer looks like a short-term thing.

If the union does not back down, the legal aftershocks could last for years. The NLRB complaint is just the beginning. The players soon are expected to file a suit challenging baseball's antitrust .. exemption and will continue to lobby Congress to remove it.

The owners insist publicly that they can withstand the legal and governmental challenges, but that confidence may have been shaken by a couple of recent NLRB rulings. The owners are developing a paper trail that could put them very much on the defensive when their impasse declaration comes under the scrutiny of the NLRB.

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The board already has issued a two-part complaint against Major League Baseball for withholding $7.8 million in All-Star Game revenues that traditionally go into the players' pension and benefits fund.

The owners tried to even the score with a complaint against two players who allegedly made threats against potential strike breakers, but the NLRB declined to issue a complaint.

Atlanta Braves president Stan Kasten jokingly dismissed the two rulings, saying that the owners weren't concerned about going 0-2 in a couple of exhibition games, but the pension complaint will be admissible as evidence of bad-faith bargaining if the NLRB agrees to put the owners' impasse declaration on trial.

Union lawyers appear confident that they would be able to overturn the salary cap even without the owners' inadvertent assistance.

"There are two lines of cases that we are referring to," Orza said. "Neither one of them serves the clubs' interests very well."

In the owners' defense, they apparently believed that the economic future of the game was so bleak that they had relatively little to lose by taking this hard-line gambit. The worst-case scenario is a court injunction that forces them to play under the old rules indefinitely and an antitrust defeat that could cost nearly $1 billion in damages, but the upside could be far greater.

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Just the rollback portion of the revenue split -- from 58 percent to 50 -- will recoup an estimated $1.2 billion over the seven-year life of the implemented agreement, and that does not factor in far more in savings that will result from the end of a 20-year salary spiral.

The union's legal strategy isn't hard to figure, but the players still must decide on the best way to weather the labor dispute. The players have voiced their intention to remain on strike, but they could choose to return to work and let the lawyers and lobbyists shoulder the fight. It is an option that has not been discussed publicly, but it could happen.

There may come a time when it is pointless to remain on strike, but that time has not yet come. If the players agreed to go back right away, it would remove the urgency from NLRB, Labor Department and congressional efforts to address the problems that led to the dispute.

It will also take some time to get past the bad feelings that are certain to grow out of Thursday's impasse declaration. The players who participated in the weeks of negotiations that led up to that decision made it clear that they will not soon forget the way the owners dismissed their final attempt at a compromise.

"I'm not saying we [players and owners] never will be able to work together again," said Detroit Tigers star Cecil Fielder, "but implementation is not going to be easy to swallow."



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