Cone laboring to leave strike behind for good


DUNEDIN, Fla. -- Toronto Blue Jays right-hander David Cone was happy to be sitting in front of a locker instead of standing in front of a podium yesterday, but the baseball labor dispute never is very far away.

He was one of the most visible players during the eight-month players strike -- and remains one of the most vocal supporters of the Major League Baseball Players Association -- so it isn't possible to withdraw to the relative safety of the usual baseball jargon.

Everything seems connected in some way to the strained relationship between the players and owners, even the trade that sent the 1994 Cy Young Award winner from the Kansas City Royals to the Blue Jays soon after the players decided to end the strike and report to spring training.

"They told me it wasn't connected," said Cone, who gave up three runs and seven hits in five innings during yesterday's 6-3 exhibition win over the Orioles. "I can't see that it helped, but I'll take it at face value. Every player on the negotiating committee feared that. . . that's why you saw so many name players up there. There was some real anxiety about that among the younger players."

Cone clearly was one of the ringleaders of baseball's longest player rebellion, but he is not afraid to take an objective look back at the way the union handled itself during one of the most difficult and damaging periods in the history of the game.

"The guys up there, like [Tom] Glavine and [Cecil] Fielder and myself sometimes took some heat, and maybe it was deserved," Cone said. "We probably said some things we shouldn't have."

The union found itself backtracking on a couple of occasions after militant players threatened reprisals against strikebreakers and union leaders left open the the possibility of sanctions against managers and coaches for working with replacement players. Cone sees now that the union's idealism may leave the players vulnerable to criticism for returning to work while major-league umpires remain locked out.

"I do see some irony there," Cone said. "There I am, up there preaching unionism for 200 days, and now we're in a situation where we don't have real umpires. I know that we are verbally supporting them. The game needs them."

Still, there is no chance that the players will choose on Opening Day to refuse to cross the umpires' picket line. In their defense, they have not been asked, but it still could create a potentially embarrassing public relations problem for a group of wealthy players who asked unrepresented minor-leaguers to honor their strike.

"We never discussed [the umpires' labor dispute] because we had our own problems," Cone said, "but if they asked us, I'm sure we'd call a meeting and take a vote. I can't see us going back out. How do you explain that to the fans. 'Hey, we're back . . . now we're not back.' That would be dangerous territory."

There are significant differences between the two labor disputes. The players have not made any significant contract demands, while the umpires are making significant salary demands.

"It's a difficult issue," Cone said. "It's sort of the same situation as when we wanted to talk to the coaches and managers. We knew they had to go to work, but we wanted them to verbally support us."

The players did score some public relations points late in the dispute when they rallied around Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken ,, and promised not to agree to any settlement that would allow his consecutive games streak to be compromised. Of that, Cone has no regrets.

VTC "I think the biggest relief of the whole mess was that the streak wasn't jeopardized," Cone said. "I think both sides are relieved that it wasn't an issue. It is a record that people said would never be broken and -- if he breaks it -- I don't think it will ever be broken again."

Cone's outspokenness may have cost him a chance to finish his career in Kansas City, where he grew up and broke into professional baseball, but he isn't complaining about the deal that put him back in the thick of the American League East race. The Blue Jays are coming off a tough year, but the addition of Cone (16-5, 2.94 ERA last year) should make them a strong contender.

That's the main thing, but he also likes the idea of joining one of the teams that resisted management's hard-line bargaining strategy. The Blue Jays joined the Orioles and the New York Mets in voting against the decision to implement the salary cap in December.

"I think you have a group of players who want to play for this organization, and Baltimore," Cone said. "Who wouldn't want to play for Peter Angelos or [Blue Jays president] Paul Beeston right now? I think there are a lot of players who would go to the wall for this organization."

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