CHICAGO -- Baseball's four-year labor dispute was settled yesterday, when owners voted overwhelmingly to ratify a new collective bargaining agreement with the Major League Baseball Players Association and end a battle over the economic future of the game.
The owners voted 26-4 to approve the same agreement that they rejected, 18-12, three weeks ago, guaranteeing labor peace through 2000 and reviving a 1997 experiment with interleague play.
The deal calls for a stiff luxury tax on player payrolls in excess of $51 million next year, with the threshold rising in 1998 and 1999. The new contract also calls for incremental raises in the minimum major-league salary, sets new arbitration rules, and allows owners to go forward with revenue sharing and expansion.
There still is some contract language to work out and the executive board of the players union must formally approve the deal, but the union leaders already have been authorized by the players to ratify this settlement.
"This is a landmark day for baseball," said interim commis-
sioner Bud Selig. "It gives me a great personal pleasure to say that baseball fans can now look forward to five years [the contract contains an option for 2001] of uninterrupted play. We can now work together to bring peace to the game and reconnect our sport to all of our fans."
The end came quickly and quietly, much in contrast with the long-running dispute that led to a 232-day players strike and to the damaging decision to cancel the 1994 postseason.
"I think everyone felt it was time to put this to an end and move forward for the good of the game," said Chicago Cubs president Andy MacPhail, who voted with the majority. "There just comes a time that you have to do things for the game and hope for the
Orioles owner Peter Angelos, who voted against the deal during the first ratification meeting and had given indications that he would oppose it again, chose instead to join in the approval vote once it became apparent that there would be enough votes for ratification.
"We voted for it," he said. "I think everyone is pleased that it's over, that there is an agreement and that the continuity of Major League Baseball is guaranteed for the next five years."
Angelos was voting against his own economic interests,
because the Orioles figure to be one of the teams hit hardest by the luxury tax. They had the second-highest payroll in baseball last year and are expected to remain one of the biggest spenders in 1997.
Union head Donald Fehr applauded the decision and vowed to work hard to rebuild the tarnished image of the sport.
"With the conclusion of these negotiations, the dark cloud that has been hanging over the sport for too long will dissipate," he said in a statement. "Now, we must get to work on the even more important business at hand."
The vote appeared to be a clear repudiation of powerful White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, who was considered the driving force behind a successful effort to block the agreement at the Nov. 6 owners meeting. His coalition of opposition owners appeared to disintegrate with his decision to sign free-agent outfielder Albert Belle to a record five-year, $55 million contract a week ago.
Though the owners denied that the Belle contract had any impact on the vote, several teams expressed displeasure after the leader of the ownership hard-liners added to the game's salary spiral.
Reinsdorf was unrepentant, and he reasserted his opposition to the new labor deal after yesterday's two-hour meeting.
"I voted against because I didn't think it solved any problems," Reinsdorf said. "The agreement is probably good for the White Sox, because it dooms the small-market clubs to not being able to compete, and we're a large-market club."
It hurts the White Sox in one big way, because it restores service time lost by players during the 1994-95 strike and releases Chicago pitching ace Alex Fernandez into the free-agent market. The Orioles, among several other clubs, are expected to bid heavily for his services.
Fernandez is one of the most prominent members of a new group of free agents who will enter the market because of the added service time or because of a clause in the new contract that eliminates the ability of clubs to offer arbitration to potential free agents who have declared free agency in the previous five years.
That group also includes All-Star outfielder Moises Alou, reliever Mel Rojas and shortstop Mike Bordick, all of whom could be of interest to the Orioles.
The deal ends a labor dispute that began when owners voted on Dec. 7, 1992, to exercise their option to terminate the previous labor deal one year early and reopen collective bargaining. They would go on to formulate a revenue sharing/salary cap plan that was rejected by the players union, with The resulting stalemate leading to the strike that wiped out the final two months of the 1994 season and the World Series.
The strike also shortened the 1995 season by 18 games and alienated baseball fans so much that attendance dropped by 20 percent during the 1995 season and recovered only slightly, with a 6 percent increase, in 1996.
The labor dispute appeared to be over in October, when ownership negotiator Randy Levine and Fehr reached a tentative agreement during the World Series, but Selig quietly withdrew his support for the finished product and allowed it to be voted down.
The owners voted that day to go back to the union for more concessions, but union officials rebuffed their attempt to reopen negotiations, leaving the owners with two choices: They could rethink their Nov. 6 vote, or give up on interleague play and look ahead to another year of labor unrest.
"I think there was the realization that we couldn't change the deal," said Philadelphia Phillies owner Bill Giles, "and there was the fact that Bud Selig supported the deal today."
Selig, also owner of the Milwaukee Brewers, got credit from all quarters for the decision to declare labor peace. He had left the owners to make their own decision three weeks ago, but actively endorsed the deal this time.
"He was very articulate," said Levine, who nearly resigned after the deal was rejected on Nov. 6. "He laid out the whole case."
Now that he has presided over the end of the labor battle, Selig may soon initiate the search for his own replacement. The owners have stated throughout the labor dispute that they would begin the search for a permanent commissioner after a new labor deal was in place.
Pub Date: 11/27/96