Baseball owners meet labor issue tops agenda


DETROIT -- Major League Baseball's Executive Council met here last night to plot labor strategy and map out the future of a troubled sport, but there still is little hard evidence that the industry is ready to pull itself back together.

The five-hour caucus opened three days of quarterly meetings of the owners at the Westin Renaissance Hotel -- meetings that Boston Red Sox general partner John Harrington characterized as "very important" and yet unlikely to yield significant headlines.

The owners are expected to discuss a wide range of issues this week, including revenue-sharing, interleague play and the several ownership transfers, but the game's labor dispute remains the most important issue facing the sport as the 1995 season draws to a close.

Harrington, who has headed the ownership bargaining committee since former lead negotiator Richard Ravitch moved aside last December, said that there have been positive developments since negotiations resumed under a media blackout earlier this summer, but he cautioned that substantive progress toward a new agreement needs to be made soon to keep the labor dispute from inhibiting 1996 revenues.

"These are formal negotiations," he said. "Most of what happens in negotiations happen between the lawyers from each side. The only thing that would make them more formal is if some of us [owners] started showing up in tuxedos.

"Things are positive. Even though you don't have the field generals in the room, when people are talking and they are having understandings, it's good. Then you have to look for a pressure point . . . a deadline. If there's no deadline, what's vTC going to drive it?"

So far, no major economic obstacles have been overcome, which leaves open the possibility of another bitter labor confrontation this winter. Harrington denied reports that there is a cadre of hard-line owners that still would like to declare an impasse and implement a salary cap, but cautioned that the owners do not have until the opening of spring training to get an agreement.

"If we get into December, there may be a lot of people like that," he said.

The owners tried to implement a salary cap last December, but withdrew the implemented terms under pressure from the National Labor Relations Board. They could try again -- and might be able to justify it now that nearly three years have passed since they reopened collective bargaining in December 1992 -- but that could push the players into another damaging work stoppage.

Harrington insisted that no one wants to do that, but he also said that the owners cannot afford to have another disruption in their selling season, the winter months when teams sell group and season tickets.

"We're already approaching the selling season for 1996," he said. "We were telling that to the players last winter that we were losing the selling season."

The result was a severe decline in attendance this year that could be repeated if the game's labor uncertainty stretches through the off-season again. If that has prompted a sense of urgency among the owners, however, it has not been apparent by the speed with which they have carried out their plan to name a new professional negotiator to lead the management bargaining committee.

New York City labor relations commissioner Randy Levine reportedly has accepted the job, but the appointment has not been announced. That could happen soon, though ownership sources indicated that it probably won't be announced during the meetings.

Perhaps the owners are trying to keep the quarterly session from becoming too focused on labor. There are other issues, though almost all of them are affected in some way by the lack of a long-term contract with the players.

Expansion and interleague play, for instance. The owners still have not decided which league will get the expansion Tampa Bay Devil Rays and Arizona Diamondbacks, and that decision could determine whether there will be interleague play in this decade.

"If you split the two expansion teams, you have to have interleague play," Harrington said. "If you don't, you don't have to, but there still is a lot of sentiment in favor of it. I'd rather see us put one team in each league and then expand by two teams a couple of years later and have 32 teams. But if we don't get a satisfactory labor agreement, we know there will also be relocation issues in places like Pittsburgh."

The owners also are expected to discuss Disney's agreement to purchase a controlling interest in the California Angels and an ownership transfer in Oakland, but neither of those issues will come up for formal approval.

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