Fehr claims 800 players now free

NEW YORK — NEW YORK -- With Congress and the National Labor Relations Board already involved, the Major League Baseball Players Association opened a new front yesterday in its multi-faceted attack on the owners' implementation of a salary cap.

The union informed the clubs that the approximately 800 unsigned players who were tendered contracts two weeks ago are free agents, or will become so, because the changes the clubs made in the uniform player's contract made the tenders improper.


Chuck O'Connor, the owners' chief labor lawyer, immediately disputed the contention made by Donald Fehr, the head of the players union. Similar to every other aspect of the ongoing labor dispute, their differences will be headed for resolution by a third party.

Even there, the two sides may disagree on who can decide that.


If the players are found to be correct, new free agents could include players such as the Orioles' Mike Mussina, Boston's Mo Vaughn and Montreal's Moises Alou.

In a letter Fehr sent to O'Connor yesterday, he wrote, "Since the tenders for 1995 were not of contracts within the meaning of Article XX (A)(2)(c) of the expired Basic Agreement, the players tendered are free agents as provided in that article."

The clubs' right to reserve players for the 1995 season, Fehr continued, comes from paragraph 10 (a) of the 1994 uniform player's contract. "That section," he wrote, "provides that it is only the 1994 contractwhich may be renewed and, further, that it may be renewed only on the same terms as it contains."

Players cannot be renewed under the Dec. 23 tenders because of the differences in the contract, Fehr said, adding that if any players remain unsigned by the renewal date, March 1, "they will, accordingly, become free agents at that time."

The revised uniform player's contract that the owners implemented with the salary cap Dec. 23, contains three significant changes, all of which benefit the owners:

Players can be released for any reason, including economic, instead of being released only for failure "to exhibit sufficient skill or competitive ability"; a player's contract can be voided if he flunks a club physical within 20 days of the signing (no such clause had existed); and a club can suspend a player for any length of time (instead of a 30-day limit).

Paragraph 10 (a) of the old and new contract allows a club to renew a player's contract "for the period of one year on the same terms" if he isn't signed by the renewal date.

That provision served as the basis for the most significant individualcontract dispute in baseball history. In 1975, Richard Moss, then the union's general counsel, argued before arbitrator Peter Seitz that Andy Messersmith and the Orioles' Dave McNally should be free agents because they had played one year under renewed contracts and no longer could be reserved by their clubs.


Seitz agreed, and free agency was created. The clubs tried to have the ruling overturned, but they failed. Like the clubs' lawyers then, O'Connor disputed the union's contention.

"The union simply is saying that they disagree with the clubs' implementation of the salary cap and the related player contract changes," O'Connor said. "That's not news to us. We understood that when they made their filing with the NLRB."

Both sides have filed unfair labor practice charges with the labor board, contending that the other did not bargain in good faith. The board is investigating the charges and is expected to decide in about a month if it has reason to issue complaints.

"I suspect we will use the letter as further evidence that this union refused to bargain collectively over . . . wages," O'Connor said. "It's another aspect of the ongoing dispute over implementation of the salary cap."