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All's quiet on the umpire labor front

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Negotiations between baseball management and the new World Umpires Association have yet to produce a contract, but the talks apparently are moving in the right direction again.

Bargaining is set to resume this week in Baltimore, after grinding to a near halt over several sticky issues - including a demand by Major League Baseball that umpires agree not to talk to the media without permission from the commissioner's office.

MLB executive vice president Sandy Alderson had pushed for that clause in an attempt to reduce rancor between the umpires, the players and baseball management, but it still came off as a heavy-handed attempt to gain greater control over the behavior of the umpires. It also came off as a bit un-American, but maybe that's part of the industry's attempt to make the game more global.

There were even whispers of a possible strike, but Baltimore attorney Larry Gibson - who, along with fellow Baltimore attorney Joel Smith and WUA leaders John Hirschbeck, Joe Brinkman and Tim Welke, are representing the umpires at the bargaining table - said that the tenor of the negotiations has changed for the better.

"We met last week, and significant progress was make toward resolving the differences between the umpires and Major League Baseball," Gibson said. The new union has stuck with a largely non-confrontational approach to the negotiations, in contrast to the bargaining style of former union chief Richie Phillips. Ownership, perhaps emboldened by the collapse of the old union, has pressed ahead with its attempt to rein in the umpires, and why not?

The balance of power in this labor relationship clearly shifted toward ownership after Phillips persuaded the umpires to resign en masse last September. But the new umpires union recently released a statement of solidarity with the 200-plus minor-league umpires that might make it more difficult for management to hire replacements in the event of a work stoppage.

The minor-league umpires are organizing a union of their own, which could lead to an affiliation with the WUA - leaving ownership to go down to the college level or lower to staff games in a strike.

Regardless of who holds the bigger hammer in negotiations, neither side can afford to take this dispute to the next level. That's why it is important for both sides to take advantage of this opportunity to resolve their differences and build a more constructive relationship.

More labor pains

Anyone who doubts that Major League Baseball is headed for more labor trouble with the players needs only have watched the appearance of baseball commissioner Bud Selig and labor chief Don Fehr on NBC's "Meet the Press" last Sunday.

Selig again stressed the need for payroll constraints to enhance the competitive potential of small-market clubs, and Fehr reiterated the union's opposition to an artificial salary cap.

The union believes that baseball should bridge the economic disparity between the richest and poorest clubs through revenue-sharing. Selig knows that powerful large-market owners such as the New York Yankees' George Steinbrenner won't go for that unless they also get some salary concessions from the players union.

The current labor agreement runs through next season, and Fehr said Friday the union is likely to exercise its option to extend it one year. That means that the players may be in the same position next summer that they were in before voting to strike in 1994.

Anyone really think that it'll get settled short of that?

Hypocrisy on Cuba

So, the Justice Department is investigating the Orioles for their stated (and then denied) policy against signing Cuban defectors - which might constitute illegal discrimination.

What a country. This is the same Justice Department that enforces an economic embargo that negatively affects the standard of living of virtually every Cuban citizen and contributes to the sorry conditions that prompt players to risk their lives to get out of Cuba.

Class act

Talk about a kinder, gentler David Wells. He is 32-13 since the deal that sent him back to Toronto for five-time Cy Young Award winner Roger Clemens (21-16 over the same period), but "Boomer" has been reluctant to gloat publicly about the one-sidedness of the deal.

During Monday's All-Star news conference, he said that if he had been the Yankees' management, he would have wanted to acquire Clemens, too.

"When you can trade for a Roger Clemens," he said, "I think you'd be crazy not to, because he's an outstanding pitcher."

Wells has been known to say the wrong thing once in a while, but he said all the right things during the All-Star break, including a public mea culpa for his spring criticism of Blue Jays management for trading Shawn Green and Pat Hentgen.

"I'm glad I ate my words," he said. "I thought we had a good team last year. To make a deal like we did, I didn't understand it. But once these guys came to camp, I realized how good they were. I looked foolish. I made a mistake. Now, when I see Raul Mondesi out in right field every day, it's a blessing in disguise."

Watch out for Giants

The San Francisco Giants got off to such a bad start that it looked as if they might be an afterthought in the National League West. Now, they might be the favorites.

The Giants stormed into the All-Star break with eight victories in nine games, moving into second place behind the Arizona Diamondbacks. They still have to overcome an inconsistent pitching staff, but the D'backs are having similar problems and the schedule might favor the Giants.

San Francisco has 12 games left against the last-place San Diego Padres and could hold its fate in its hands with eight meetings against Arizona in the final 11 games of the season. The Los Angeles Dodgers and Colorado Rockies also might have a say before it's over, but the Giants seem well-positioned to reach the playoffs - either as the division champion or a wild card.

"There's no doubt we can compete with everybody in our division," general manager Brian Sabean said. "I think the 'what if' for everybody, if you're in the position to win the division, is what it's going to take to be the wild card.

"It's possible that if we are in a four-team race that the wild card could come from our division. I think you have to set your sights on winning the division first rather than take your chances on winning the wild card. So many factors, as we found out in '98, are beyond your control."

Neagle redux

The Cincinnati Reds offered former Arundel High star Denny Neagle a three-year contract worth $18 million before trading him to the Yankees on Wednesday, but Neagle's agent, Barry Meister, didn't even make a counteroffer.

Apparently, Neagle intends to become a free agent at the end of the season and could be destined for Camden Yards. The Orioles would have to be interested - both because of his track record and his local ties - especially if it becomes apparent that they will not be able to re-sign Mike Mussina.

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