Baseball's four-year-old labor dispute remained unresolved last night, as a mutually agreed-upon midnight settlement deadline passed and both sides prepared to spend another winter under the rules of the previous collective bargaining agreement.
Owners made no effort to save a proposed contract as midnight passed, but put off a decision to OK next year's schedule without interleague play.
Interim commissioner Bud Selig failed this week to persuade the Major League Baseball Players Association to agree to changes in a contract proposal that was hammered out by management negotiator Randy Levine and union chief Don Fehr, leaving the industry in limbo and apparently canceling a 1997 experiment with interleague play.
The failure to reach an agreement figures to have wide-ranging consequences, from the immediate effect on the contract status of many premier players to the threat of another work stoppage and another sharp decline in public confidence in the sport.
The immediate impact:
Eleven players who would have become free agents under the deal rejected by the owners remain tied to their teams, who can prevent them from entering the free-agent market by offering salary arbitration. That group includes premier pitcher Alex Fernandez, outfielder Moises Alou and shortstop Mike Bordick.
Thirty-four other players who would have become free agents under the rejected settlement remain governed by repeater rights and can be retained by their clubs if they are offered arbitration. That group includes Orioles Bobby Bonilla, Jesse Orosco, Eddie Murray and Mark Parent.
Interleague play, one of the centerpieces of baseball's new marketing strategy, may have to be postponed. Selig had designated the midnight deadline as a possible drop-dead date for the 1997 experiment, but an ownership source said last night that interleague play still could be salvaged if an agreement is worked out in the next two weeks.
The owners will not be able to institute an enhanced revenue-sharing plan that would have transferred millions of dollars from the game's richest clubs to boost payrolls of struggling small-market teams.
Selig released a prepared statement late yesterday afternoon in which he vowed to work toward a quick settlement, though there appears to be little room for compromise with a union that now seems intent on forcing the owners to suffer for their decision to undermine the recent drive toward an agreement.
"We intend to move as expeditiously as possible and bring this to a successful conclusion," Selig said. "Randy Levine, the club's chief negotiator, has been an integral part of the process and will continue to be."
Levine was expected to resign last night, but was asked by Selig to remain as management's chief negotiator long enough to see if some kind of breakthrough can be achieved before the end of the month.
"I have spoken to Bud and he is committed to trying to resolve this in the near term," Levine said in the ownership news release. "I will do everything I can to assist in bringing this to fruition."
The union response was predictably skeptical.
"This is simply an attempt to engage in a public relations game," Fehr said by telephone last night. "We don't treat it seriously. Bud can't even be bothered to talk to me."
If nothing changes in the next week or so, Levine likely will follow through with his resignation and the deal that he helped engineer will collapse.
He is staying around to play a long shot. Levine needs to find a creative way to mollify both hard-line owners and angry union officials, or hope that enough war-weary owners unite to force a new vote on the rejected settlement.
The vote last week was 18-12 against ratification, but sources inside the ownership meeting indicated that a preliminary straw vote showed a slight majority of owners favoring a settlement.
When it became apparent that there would not be the required 75 percent majority necessary to ratify the agreement, the owners decided to re-vote and send a stronger message to the union before attempting to resume negotiations.
Since then, the union has responded to everything that has come from the management bargaining committee with both public and private contempt, leaving little doubt that the rhetorical cease-fire that has existed the past two years is coming to an end.
"Since we have no agreement as of midnight tonight, free agents will be able to sign with clubs under the terms of the previous Basic Agreement," Fehr said in a prepared response to Selig's announcement. "Absent word from the owners that they have reconsidered their position, we will be operating under the old Basic Agreement for the foreseeable future.
"After all the time and effort that was put into reaching a new agreement, it is too bad that commissioner Selig and the owners saw fit to let an historic opportunity slip away."
Pub Date: 11/15/96