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Usery comes out swinging


PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Special mediator William J. Usery embarked on a new strategy yesterday in his attempt to bring an end to baseball's marathon labor dispute. He attempted to blast both sides out of their entrenched positions with a stinging assessment of the stalemated negotiations.

"After 30-something years and dealing with 1,000 or so national labor disputes, this one has gotten embarrassing and ridiculous," Usery told reporters at Major League Baseball's quarterly owners meeting. "People can't understand it and it has to be gotten over with. There is enough here to get it over with if people really want to make a deal."

Usery had just come from a meeting with the 28 major-league owners in which he appealed to them to settle their internal differences and put together a new, "best" offer to jump-start negotiations. He hopes to persuade the Major League Baseball Players Association to do the same, then resume negotiations early next week at an undetermined site.

"It is not time to play games anymore," Usery said. "They need to come forward with their best proposal. It is less than three weeks until the season begins. Replacement players are not the answer . . . resistance is not the answer. I tried to be very candid with the hard-liners and the soft-liners. I asked them to settle their differences if they have them."

The owners apparently have agreed to devise a new proposal. Colorado Rockies president Jerry McMorris indicated Wednesday that the owners might be ready to make one last push to get a deal. It seems highly unlikely that anything will be resolved in time to open the season on time with major-league players, but there still is time to reach an agreement that would end the replacement threat and allow the season to begin in mid-April.

"We were very pleased to have Bill with us," McMorris said yesterday. "His thoughts were very provocative and stimulating. Our guys are going to get together and review what Bill said to us. I can assure you that all of us are committed to getting this done at the bargaining table."

Union director Donald Fehr will need some convincing. The players have to wonder if Usery's latest mediation effort may create a pretext for ownership to declare a second impasse and attempt again to impose new work rules.

"I don't know whether the owners will prepare a new offer or not," Fehr said. "I know that in the past, when they have prepared new offers, they have not been prepared for the purpose of spurring bargaining, but to freeze bargaining. I hope that is not the case."

Negotiations broke off on Sunday in Scottsdale, Ariz., the day after the players and owners exchanged new proposals. The union agreed toknock $5 million off their original $59 million luxury tax threshold, but Fehr went home after ownership's counterproposal fell short of the terms of an Usery settlement proposal that the owners once were willing to accept.

The breakdown increased the level of animosity between the two sides and overshadows some significant progress. Two days earlier, the union finally accepted the terms of ownership's revenue-sharing agreement set forth last fall in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and the exchange of new proposals on Saturday -- however flawed -- left each side knowing the exact bargaining position of the other for the first time.

"We worked very hard last week and we made progress," McMorris said. "We got past Fort Lauderdale and we got off religion and philosophy and got down to dealing with numbers."

The owners last proposed a 50 percent tax on salary in excess of the major-league average payroll ($40.7 million), but figure to push the tax down and threshold up to about $43 million in their next offer. The union is offering a 25 percent tax on everything over $54 million, but could knock another $5 million off that without significantly the dynamics of baseball's salary structure.

If both move that far, however, they still will be well apart, and still will face a major fight over the free agent/salary arbitration issue.

The big question is whether a "best" offer from the owners will move the negotiations ahead or put them into a deeper freeze. Usery's recommendation yesterday could lead to another implementation showdown. The owners were forced to lift their implemented salary cap when the National Labor Relations Board threatened to issue a bad-faith bargaining complaint in early February, but that would not preclude management from implementing again if the negotiations reach a legitimate impasse.

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