Has deal come on deck for baseball? Course of owners anything but decided

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Baseball's long-running labor dispute could end Wednesday, when baseball owners meet in Chicago to vote on a proposed five-year collective bargaining agreement, but there are rumblings that the meeting could turn into another management war council if hard-line owners can organize enough support to defeat the deal.

The alternative is another long winter of labor/management acrimony and the possibility of another work stoppage next year, something both sides know would be disastrous for an industry that is just now reclaiming public confidence after the disastrous 1994-1995 players strike.

Ownership negotiator Randy Levine was thought to have the 21 votes necessary to ratify the deal, but many owners still have strong misgivings about the proposed settlement, which is viewed by some as little more than another document of surrender to the players union.

Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, along with at least four other owners, is known to be in strong opposition to the deal. His opposition stems from the fact that a deal would restore service time to players for a strike that damaged parts of two seasons and wiped out the 1994 World Series and because it falls far short of the salary cap/revenue-sharing plan that owners hoped to put in place when they reopened collective bargaining nearly four years ago.

There are believed to be 15 teams solidly behind a settlement, leaving enough undecided votes to make next week's meeting very interesting -- and contentious.

One high-ranking National League ownership official, who did not want to be identified, said yesterday that he does not believe it will be approved. Another source said that interim commissioner Bud Selig is in a position to influence enough of the undecided votes that the decision essentially is up to him.

Selig has not taken a position and was not available for comment yesterday, but he told the Los Angeles Times on Wednesday that "some way, somehow, I think we will [get an agreement]."

The new deal calls for a luxury tax on excess payroll over $51 million next year, with graduating thresholds ($55 million in '98 and $58.9 million in '99) during the next two seasons and no tax in the final two years of the contract. It is a far cry from a plan implemented by the owners in December 1994 that would have capped payrolls at about $35 million and forced all clubs to stay within a relatively narrow payroll range.

Instead, free-spending clubs such as the Orioles can spend all they want, but must pay a 35 percent tax on every dollar over the payroll threshold. Since total payroll includes salaries and benefits, that means the Orioles would have paid more than $3 million in luxury taxes if the new plan had been in effect in the 1996 season.

If baseball's salary structure does not change drastically next season, the New York Yankees, Orioles and Atlanta Braves -- the three top-spending clubs in the game -- would supply most of the tax money that will be distributed to struggling small-market teams. Levine has come under fire this week as some owners face the realization that the settlement is not what anyone originally wanted, and a source close to the negotiations said yesterday that Levine already knows he'll be a convenient scapegoat for disgruntled owners no matter which way the vote goes.

The intent of the plan is to close the gap between the biggest and smallest spenders and put an overall drag on salaries, but some owners believe the tax is not high enough to have any impact on high-revenue teams, and with good reason. Orioles owner Peter Angelos already has said that he will continue to spend heavily to bring the World Series back to Baltimore, and Yankees owner George Steinbrenner is expected to spend whatever is necessary to defend his world championship.

The owners have shown during the past couple of years that they know how to cut costs -- releasing players to avoid arbitration and setting strict individual payroll budgets -- but that resolve already appears to be weakening. The Arizona Diamondbacks recently gave a $10 million contract to college prospect Travis Lee, blowing a hole in baseball's rookie salary structure, and the Florida Marlins reportedly are prepared to offer $10 million a year to volatile outfielder Albert Belle.

None of that would have been possible if the owners had stuck with the salary cap proposal that they implemented in 1994. The owners withdrew the cap under threat of sanctions from the National Labor Relations Board, only to find out months later that a three-judge panel probably would have upheld their right to declare an impasse in the negotiations.

Now, the legal playing field is so muddy that no one knows what will happen if the deal is defeated and the owners decide to seek far stricter salary constraints. They are required by federal labor law to bargain in good faith, which will make it difficult to backtrack on negotiations that have progressed so far beyond their original salary cap proposal.

"You can go back to square one," said one ownership official, "but it might be years before you could implement a settlement and there might be a labor confrontation before that."

The only hope of wresting substantial concessions from the union might be a lockout in 1997, a scenario so frightening that neither side will discuss it publicly.

The outcome of next week's vote is further clouded by the possibility that some clubs might want to stall the deal for competitive reasons. The Orioles retain repeater rights to reliever Jesse Orosco and outfielder Bobby Bonilla if service time lost during the strike is not restored under the new agreement, and several other clubs are in the same situation.

Angelos has given every indication that he will vote for labor peace, but the service time issue could be a factor for some of the undecided clubs. It may have been overrated as the dominant obstacle when negotiations heated up again in August, but it is a sensitive philosophical issue to some owners still stinging from the loss of the 1994 World Series.

Pub Date: 11/01/96

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