Baseball expected to evade labor issue 3-day owners meeting may only yield TV deal


LOS ANGELES -- Unfinished business. It's a popular refrain in sports, frequently adopted by near-miss teams on a return mission or athletes with something to prove.

It's so popular that it has become a cliche, yet it would fit nicely on the banner welcoming major-league baseball owners to the Biltmore Hotel today for their three-day quarterly meeting.

New labor agreement? Not yet.

New television contract? Any minute now.

New ownership for the California Angels and Pittsburgh Pirates? Getting closer.

Representatives of the 30 teams -- including the two expansion clubs that will begin play in 1998 -- will discuss these subjects and more, but are not expected to create many headlines before they depart Thursday.

Even in times of great crisis, the owners have been an indecisive lot, more likely to sneak out of town than face up to a tough situation. The labor debacle proved that. The only thing that seems likely to come out of these meetings is the ratification of the new television contract, which is considered a formality.

The approval of the Walt Disney Co.'s 25 percent acquisition of the Angels could come up for a vote nearly a year after it was considered a done deal, but even that seemingly easy confirmation may be put off again.

The winter meetings it ain't, but general managers also will meet here this week, which could create an environment conducive to trade activity. But Orioles GM Pat Gillick indicated over the weekend that he does not expect to pursue anything significant.

In a best-case scenario, the GMs might provide some entertainment value while the owners mull the important issues that face the game. Here's where things stand with the opening of spring training four weeks away:

* Labor: The owners were the last to act in the long-running collective bargaining dispute with the Major League Baseball Players Association, offering a new contract proposal to the union Nov. 15. New ownership negotiator Randy Levine met with union chief Donald Fehr last week, but he was told it could be several more weeks before the union produces a counterproposal.

The ownership proposal did include some concessions and reportedly embraced some of the suggestions made by the union during intense negotiations last March, but union officials are reluctant to agree to what would be major concessions on free agency and salary arbitration.

The good news is that both sides were so wounded by the showdown that damaged the 1994 and '95 seasons that it appears certain the 1996 season will be played without interruption.

* Ownership transfers: Disney's plan to buy 25 percent of the Angels and take over operation of the club from Gene and Jackie Autry is supposed to come up for a vote, and there appears to be little opposition. Owners aren't going to pass up the opportunity to invite the world's richest entertainment company into their club, but they are taking their time about it.

The pending sale of the Pirates isn't quite so simple. Questions about the financial package put together by newspaper mogul Kevin McClatchy could hang up the transaction for months.

The possible sale of the St. Louis Cardinals also is expected to be discussed.

* Television contract: The new network and cable television contract has been negotiated and requires only the formal approval of the owners, which figures to be unanimous. The owners were not comfortable with the profit-sharing arrangement that led to creation of the Baseball Network, and are eager to go back to a system of rights fees.

* The future: The owners will continue to inch closer to adopting a plan for interleague play, perhaps as soon as 1998. Nothing substantial will come out of these meetings, but the owners could decide before the end of the year to put one of the new expansion franchises in each league, which would make limited interleague play a necessity.

The purists may object, but it will happen unless there is a dramatic shift in the ownership power structure. Interim commissioner Bud Selig wants interleague play badly. So does powerful Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf.

* More expansion: That's going to happen, too. The owners know there is big money in Orlando, Fla., and Northern Virginia, and they want to divide it up soon after the turn of the century. But that isn't likely to be an important topic of conversation this week.

* Pseudo winter meetings: Hardly. The GMs will be in town for a couple of days, but this meeting won't take the place of the annual December trade and free-agent fest that was discontinued a couple of years ago.

"I really don't see anything happening," Gillick said. "We're going because there's a meeting and we're expected to be there."

It's easier to do everything over the phone now, though it's always possible that a couple of GMs will sit down for an informal conversation and something will click.

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