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In theater of absurd, players and owners take turns in Dumber role

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A timely synonym for the owners and Players Association leaders would be Dumb and Dumber, but there would be a problem. It is impossible to identify, within the entire context of this mess, which side is actually Dumber.

The owners claim losses of about $700 million from the strike and have almost nothing to show for it. They aren't going to get a

salary cap, they haven't broken the union and they spent thousands of dollars and man-hours putting together the replacement player sham that, in the end, they probably won't have the guts to follow through on.

The owners did prove, for once, that they can stick together. Big deal. It would've been better if they had built a treehouse or shared special fraternity pins or come up with a special password.

The players gave up nearly two months of paychecks by going on strike Aug. 12, and were, at times, garish in their arrogance. There was Detroit second baseman Lou Whitaker showing up for a union meeting in a limousine, and the players suggesting they would hire others to walk picket lines for them.

And for what? They have effectively gained nothing, because while it appears they will bargain for something close to a status quo in the arbitration and free agency rules, the teams have been devastated financially -- losses that will take years to recoup -- and the union's middle and lower classes will pay a heavy price.

There's no way to gauge how much the two sides have hurt the game by forcing the cancellation of the World Series, by %J interrupting one of the best seasons in history, by creating an off-season when the big names were Don Fehr and Bud Selig and William J. Usery, instead of Frank Thomas and Jack McDowell and Cal Ripken. They forced the layoffs of thousands of workers across the country.

They botched this thing badly, and it was unnecessary. Looking back, both sides have had wonderful opportunities to move toward a deal (and we offer no apologies for second-guessing). At those moments when they logically could've moved toward a resolution, they did the illogical.

* August 1994 -- With the strike date less than two weeks away, the owners refuse to give the players All-Star Game money earmarked for the union's pension fund. The owners also refuse to guarantee they will not unilaterally impose a new economic system. Nothing like building trust at a critical time.

* Late August 1994 -- The players have been out on strike for two weeks and the owners have shown no signs -- zero -- of buckling. The players could call off their strike, finish the season, receive their last paychecks and win some public relations points by saving the World Series. They do nothing.

* December 1994 -- The owners implement their salary cap, ensuring weeks of litigation and sending the game into a deep freeze. At the same time they are claiming the game is in serious financial trouble, St. Louis gives left-hander Danny Jackson a three-year, $11 million contract, Jay Buhner becomes a $5 million-a-year player courtesy of Seattle, and Philadelphia dedicates $20 million to Gregg Jefferies.

* February 1995 -- President Clinton jumps into the fray, giving both sides a perfect excuse to save face and bend gracefully. xTC They could say, Hey, we didn't get the deal we wanted, but we're doing this for the good of the country. The owners hardly budge, and the players shock the administration with their disrespect for Clinton and his office.

* Early March -- Reportedly, Colorado owner Jerry McMorris makes a side deal with an agent, the agreement being that Fehr will propose a 25 percent tax over a $47 million threshold, which McMorris thinks are solid numbers with which to start negotiations. Instead, McMorris is surprised when Fehr proposes $54 million threshold, a disingenuous offer because only one team spent more money than that last year. The union also angers McMorris by using supposedly off-the-record comments in its NLRB complaint.

* Mid-March -- At their quarterly meetings, the owners feel they control the playing field, giving Selig a standing ovation as he enters the room. Do they take the opportunity to make a substantive offer? No. They delay negotiations, apparently waiting for some of the unhappy players to break the strike and for the union to collapse.

* March 26 -- Players get a recommendation for an injunction from the NLRB, and although the owners have been delaying and playing a hard-line end game, they discover -- after nearly a month of inactivity -- that they may not have enough votes to enforce a lockout.

* Last week -- Owners make a proposal, players respond with rhetoric. Players make a counter-proposal, and owners respond with rhetoric. It becomes more and more likely, after months of posturing and tugs of war over powerless minor-leaguers, that replacement players will never take the field.

So here we are. Opening Day. Hope they're all pleased with themselves, the Dumb and Dumber.

Labor-free zone

It appears the next labor agreement won't contain any kind of free agency for players with four or five years of service time, so Boston's oral agreements with reliever John Wetteland, pitcher Kevin Appier and outfielder Marquis Grissom will be null and void.

But the Red Sox could wind up benefiting anyway. Montreal cannot possibly afford Grissom, Wetteland and pitcher Ken Hill, so the Expos and Red Sox are talking about a blockbuster deal.

Boston wants Wetteland, Grissom or Hill, or any two. The Expos want Aaron Sele.

"I would be hoping to hold onto at least two of them," said Montreal GM Kevin Malone, "but who knows. We could make a big deal with Boston, but it would take time."

This is a bidding war the Orioles should think about jumping into, because Wetteland, Hill and Grissom would all be perfect for the O's. But GM Roland Hemond would almost certainly have to part with Jeffrey Hammonds and/or Alex Ochoa. . . .

Colorado figures to bid on right fielder Larry Walker once a settlement is reached. . . . Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Hideo Nomo, a former star in Japan, has had some tendinitis this spring, and little wonder. During his five-year career, he threw more than 140 pitches in 61 games, including two games of 198 and 191 pitches. . . . Everybody is raving about 18-year-old outfielder Ben Grieve, Oakland's No. 1 pick in last year's draft.

"Working with Grieve is a gift from above," said Athletics hitting -- coach Jim Lefebvre. "He's that good. He'll come up quick, you'll see. He's in the same class as [Ken Griffey] Junior. When he fills out, he'll be a high-average power hitter who can hit to any field."

Grieve will start this year in Single-A.

A decision on the fate of Detroit manager Sparky Anderson, who has refused to oversee replacement players, could come today

or tomorrow.

Warning: labor stuff

Speaking of Dumb and Dumber, one of the dumbest things heard last week was the private chortling of baseball executives who say players are due for a comeuppance once a settlement is reached; because teams have no money, many marginal salary-arbitration players will be dumped onto the open market. To paraphrase the execs: Ha-ha, we can't pay them because our cash flow has dried up. Absolutely brilliant. . . .

Hypotheticals are the rule this year, and here's a good one. Suppose a settlement is not reached for another three or four weeks, followed by another three weeks of spring training. The season is shortened to 120 games. Ripken needs 121 games to tie Lou Gehrig's record, and ends the year one short of the mark. As he can do under the terms of his contract, Ripken declares himself a free agent. He could sell himself and the record-breaking game, and the bidding would be astronomical.

Oakland general manager Sandy Alderson made all that noise about refusing to change the site of the scheduled record-breaker, but unless the Powers That Be decide they want to make up games with 15 or 20 or 25 doubleheaders -- it'll never happen -- there's almost no chance the game will be played in Oakland. . . .

New York Yankees coach Willie Randolph refused to stand in for the replacement team picture. . . . Dodgers manager Tom Lasorda reportedly was irate that the Palm Beach (Fla.) Post ran a picture of him snoozing in the dugout during a replacement game. He should be bragging instead.

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