ORLANDO, FLA. — ORLANDO, Fla. -- Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken has stood firm with the Major League Baseball Players Association during the course of baseball's bitter labor dispute, so don't expect the union to abandon him in his time of need.
Union officials said yesterday that Ripken's consecutive-games streak is not in danger because they will not agree to any settlement that legitimizes replacement baseball.
"You don't draw lines in the sand in collective bargaining," said MLBPA associate general counsel Eugene Orza, "but that's a line in the sand. You can take it to the bank that scab games will not count in the standings. The players will not go back to work if they do."
Ripken needs 122 more games to break Lou Gehrig's long-standing record for consecutive games. If the season were to start on time with major-league players -- a virtual impossibility at this point -- he would challenge the record in August. If not, and Major League Baseball fields a replacement team in place of the Orioles or forces the club to forfeit unplayed games, the status of the streak would be in doubt.
"I cannot imagine a settlement in which replacement games would count for anything," union director Donald Fehr said, "so I'm not worried about it."
Both union leaders indicated that the players would take that stance even if the Gehrig record were not under siege, but it is a position that should be popular with Orioles fans.
Orioles owner Peter Angelos already had taken steps to protect the streak by refusing to participate in replacement baseball, but league officials still have not ruled on whether the streak would be affected if a team was assembled to play in place of the Orioles.
The streak was one of the subjects discussed during a pair of union meetings Tuesday night and yesterday morning in Orlando. Ripken was in attendance along with about 35 other high-profile players Tuesday to show support for Fehr and call on the owners to resume negotiations.
Ripken has supported the union throughout the lengthy labor dispute, even as it became more and more likely that the stalemated negotiations would threaten his chance to break one of baseball's seemingly untouchable records. The chase is certain to be delayed, but it does not appear that Ripken will be denied -- at least not by the strike.
"That [the streak] is just another reason that it's important to get something done," said St. Louis Cardinals shortstop Ozzie Smith, another of those at the meeting. "That's one of the most important streaks in baseball history. You have to take your hat off to Cal for doing what he has been doing. That's what this union is all about."
Several players also made it clear that they would never sanction replacement games, even if it makes a settlement more difficult to achieve.
"Any games that are played without major-league players are not -- in our minds -- real games," said New York Yankees first baseman Don Mattingly. "They would not constitute games that should count."
That is not something the owners figure to fight over if they get close enough to a deal that would put the major-league players back on the field. The status of replacement games would be just another small bargaining chip that would likely be traded off during the final stages of negotiations.
"If replacements are used during the regular season and the regular players return, those games will not count one bit," said Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop Jay Bell. "Peter Angelos has said they won't use replacement players. What are they going to do with Baltimore's record, have them start 0-30 in May?"
Of course, that assumes that there will be a negotiated settlement. If the owners hold out and wait for major-league players to begin filtering back onto their rosters, then those games probably would count. But the players who assembled at yesterday's news conference insisted that there is little chance that the union will unravel.
"If it drags on forever, I'll be out there forever," Smith said. "We'll continue to do everything we possibly can to get a settlement, but we seem to be the only ones doing any giving."
Union leaders called on the ownership negotiating team to return to the bargaining table before it is too late to avoid a firestorm of litigation that could drag on for years.
The National Labor Relations Board followed through with its threat to file an unfair labor practice complaint against the owners yesterday, and NLRB general counsel Fred Feinstein is expected to seek a preliminary injunction against the owners today or tomorrow, so the labor dispute could soon move into the courts.
"I think people should not underestimate the step taken by the general counsel," said union negotiator Lauren Rich. "I believe we are at a crossroads. If we don't get a deal in the next 10 days, you are looking at a renewed era of endless litigation."
Both sides already know what that is like. The owners lost $280 million for colluding to restrict the free-agent market in the late 1980s and only now are steering clear of the financial wreckage. The union still is sorting through collusion claims nearly nine years after the first "free-agent freezeout."
"I'm not just talking about damages or risks," Rich said. "When you are in the midst of big-stakes litigation, the whole industry suffers. The steps taken by the [NLRB] give the players legal options. An injunction would give them more legal options. What we're saying is, we've got a window here. It's easy to fight. It's not so easy to strike a peace. Once you get into litigation, it's hard to stop. It takes on a life of its own."
The players also continued to discuss plans for a barnstorming tour that would begin in April. The union is lining up sponsors and insurance for the tour, which would put star-quality players back on the field in exhibition all-star games.
"If I'm out there throwing the ball 95 miles per hour and some of these guys are standing there with a bat in their hands, you can be sure it will be real," said Boston Red Sox ace Roger Clemens. "We just want to get back out there and do what we love to do."
There are possible obstacles. Many of the top players are under long-term contracts, so clubs could challenge their right to play for another employer -- even if that employer is the union.
"If the owners want to stop these guys from playing baseball while they [the owners] are using replacement players," said Fehr, "let them go to court and try to stop them."