NEW YORK -- It could be several days before the Major League Baseball Players Association gives an official response to ownership's latest contract proposal, but union officials made it clear yesterday that they will not be pushed into a take-it-or-leave-it proposition.
"I assume there's room for negotiation," union director Donald Fehr said. "If there isn't, we're in trouble."
The owners never characterized the proposal as their final offer, but it wasn't hard to read between the lines that acting commissioner Bud Selig was reciting at Monday night's management news conference at the Loew's New York Hotel. The owners stepped forward in several areas, hoping to lure the players back to work before the start of replacement games on Sunday, but gave every indication that their offer was as good as it was going to get.
The proposal would allow the 1995 season to be played under the old work rules, then would give the players the choice of retaining the old salary arbitration/free agency system or going to a new system that phased out arbitration in return for free agency after four years, instead of six years, of service time.
The plan also called for a 50 percent luxury tax on payroll over $44 million per team and stricter minimum payrolls for teams that benefit from the Fort Lauderdale revenue-sharing plan.
"I think it's fair to say that the series of suggestions represents some movement by the clubs," Fehr said. "I think it would be incorrect of me to suggest that we think it was substantial."
Union leaders held meetings yesterday with their negotiating committee and executive board, and will continue to brief player representatives today. The ownership negotiating team headed out of town yesterday, but could return later in the week to resume negotiations if a settlement appears to be within reach.
They came a long way for a relatively brief collective bargaining session, and left wondering if it was worth the trip.
"Time will tell," said Colorado Rockies owner Jerry McMorris. "If we get a deal done, it was worth the trip . . . or else it will be just another exercise in futility."
Both sides have a full schedule for the remainder of the week.
Union and management lawyers will meet for a technical session today and examine the ownership proposal. The owners will hold a conference call tomorrow to approve the use of replacement players during the regular season. Then lawyers for both sides will appear Friday in federal court for a hearing that will determine whether District Court Judge Sonia Sotomayor issues injunction that would force the owners to resume operations under the rules of the last labor agreement.
Baseball is about to enter a legal and bureaucratic maze that could be avoided if the players and owners can find some common ground in the next four days. That seems unlikely, but the owners are holding out some hope that their latest proposal will help bring an end to the long and bitter labor dispute.
"I think we should be hopeful after last night," said acting commissioner Bud Selig. "Everyone I talked to was surprised at how far we came."
Except the union, of course. Fehr said last night that some of the movement in the ownership taxation proposal was counterbalanced by the removal of the lengthy phase-in period that was included in special mediator William J. Usery's settlement recommendation in February. The owners increased their taxation threshold from $40 million to $44 million, but union officials said the overall impact of the plan would be "comparable" to earlier proposals.
The last union proposal called for a 25 percent tax and a threshold of $54 million, but the players probably will drop that threshold below $50 million when they formulate a response later this week. The question is, will the owners even entertain a counteroffer.
"I hope that it's negotiable," said San Diego Padres pitcher Andy Benes. "The impression I got was, 'This is it, take it or leave it,' but anything we accept now will be a concession by the players. We'll end up with less and they will end up with more. It comes down to what both sides can live with.
"I think this is a step in the right direction. I don't know how far, but I hope it's to the point where we can get together and get something done."
The players continue to find comfort in the pending ruling of the National Labor Relations Board and the likelihood that an injunction will be issued this weekend, but that process probably won't move quickly enough to avert an Opening Day with replacement players.
Ownership attorney Rob Manfred confirmed that management would appeal to either the federal district court or the court of appeals (or both) for a stay if the injunction is granted. If that fails, the players would end the strike and force the owners to vote on a possible lockout.
The players will discuss that possibility in today's meeting, but it is all but certain they would vote to go back to work if an injunction is granted. If Sotomayor fails to issue the injunction, the players still could decide to end the strike, but Fehr said yesterday that they would not even discuss that possibility until after the ruling.