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Money talks, leaving deal checks away

SARASOTA, FLA. — SARASOTA, Fla. -- April 3. That's Opening Day, the day owners again start losing big money.

April 17. That's payday, the day the players again start losing big money.

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Feb. 21. That's today, the day the baseball talks resume in Milwaukee.

Get the message?

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It's still too soon.

Neither side is hurting enough to force a settlement. And unless the owners capitulate, former union director Marvin Miller expects the strike to continue, perhaps into April.

"Their aim is to break the union," Miller said from New York. "I don't think you can break the union in the off-season, in spring training, even in the early part of the season.

"I don't see any sign that their motivation has changed, in which case this will go on and on. Then the problem shifts to the players: Are you going to keep your cool, or are you going to panic?"

That remains the central question in this strike, but the owners suddenly are facing similar pressure, with Scab Training seemingly on the verge of collapse.

Miller, now retired, said, "That could be a factor," but he stuck to his basic premise -- that the owners want to break the union, and they intend to see their plan through.

"If that's the proposition, and if you stick with it, you're obviously not going to accomplish it in a short time," Miller said. "It takes a great deal of time."

This is why President Clinton's attempt to settle the strike was premature and why Peter Angelos' prediction of an agreement by Sunday remains a long shot.

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"When [William J.] Usery was first appointed [as mediator], he called me, and I had dinner with him," Miller said. "He was all gung-ho to get the parties back together.

"I said, 'Bill, you have to understand something. A) The owners don't want to settle, and B) You can't break the union in the off-season. Where is the pressure going to come from?'

"He listened to me, but I don't think he heard me."

So, what happens now? More posturing, more positioning, more finger-pointing. March 15 might be a more realistic date for a breakthrough, April 15 the most realistic of all.

Miller is adamant that the players must stick together -- "They're the most irreplaceable work force I've ever seen."

The replacement players?

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He despises them.

"Let's face it, these are people who are weak," Miller said. "They just want to be in the limelight for another day or two.

"They are people who do not have the skills or ability to compete and win jobs in the major leagues. They want to take advantage of a situation that is noncompetitive. They're not people to be admired."

Obviously, the union stands to benefit if Scab Ball is a disaster. But the fact is, the union is playing from behind. The only question now is if it will keep the score close.

Indeed, the game was over the moment the union submitted its first luxury-tax proposal. No matter what it's called, a salary cap is still a salary cap. And from that point, there was no turning back.

Of course, the union had an ulterior motive for offering its tax proposal -- it wanted to demonstrate that negotiations weren't at an impasse and prevent the owners from implementing a salary cap.

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The players won that battle -- the owners eventually removed the cap under pressure from the National Labor Relations Board -- but now they're losing the war.

Any new agreement almost certainly will include a tax that serves as a drag on salaries. Maybe not one as severe as the one Usery proposed, but one that amounts to a cap nonetheless.

And that's the least of it.

hTC If the union accepts a tax, it could no longer claim that the owners were acting in violation of antitrust law. The union would be agreeing to the tax through collective bargaining.

That would override the law -- and also remove the urgency for Congress to repeal baseball's antitrust exemption. Of course, Miller never placed much faith in Congress, anyway.

"Congress as an institution is corrupt," Miller said. "The Republicans would no more level the playing field by removing the antitrust exemption than they would vote for Clinton. I'm just amused by them."

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He won't be amused by the new agreement, not after 25 years of union advances. Unrestricted free agency for four-year players is one element that might be included. The players would label it a gain. In truth, it would be a loss.

Donald Fehr keeps calling for a free market, but it's so much blather. The union doesn't want a free market. Heck, Miller always sought to limit the number of free agents, the better to increase demand.

This would be just the opposite. Had four-year free agency been in effect last year, the number of players with the requisite service time would have increased from 210 to 324 -- a 54 percent jump.

The effect is obvious. Bill Swift and Kevin Brown are among the top free-agent pitchers this winter. They would be far less attractive if their free-agent class also included Andy Benes, Ben McDonald and Steve Avery.

That's what's coming.

That, plus the start of a luxury tax, and the end of salary arbitration.

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For this, we have to wait?


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