At 5 a.m. last Friday, weary representatives of baseball's players and owners reached agreement on a new four-year contract that avoided a long-threatened and, it seemed only hours before, certain interruption of the 1980 season. But the confusion and misunderstanding that characterized the months of negotiations did not end with the settlement. True, there would be winners and losers on the field later that day, but who had won and who had lost in the negotiations? And what "small miracle," as the players' man, Marvin Miller, insisted would be necessary, had occurred to resolve the critical free-agent-compensation issue?
About noon the Associated Press provided a startling answer. The owners had gotten "essentially what they wanted." By late afternoon, however, it became clear that neither side had won or lost. If there was any victory, it belonged to the baseball fan, who would not have to miss a single pitch—at least for the remainder of this season.
Throughout the negotiations the two sides had agreed on only one thing—that a strike would be detrimental to everybody. "We have no way of knowing just how much a strike could end up damaging our product," says Boston General Manager Haywood Sullivan, "but let's face it, working out a compromise was in the best interests of all of us."
However, it was the owners who seemed to be provoking the strike until they made a last-minute concession to avoid one. According to Ken Moffett, the "48-going-on-l,000"-year-old federal mediator who presided over the discussions from March 30 on, first in Palm Springs and then at New York's Doral Inn, "Any negotiations in which management wants to take away something that the workers have, you've got the likelihood of a strike." From the moment talks began last fall, the owners had pressed for give-backs. "When they realized the players were serious about striking," said Moffett, "the owners relented and made an acceptable proposal."
The critical issue was increased compensation for clubs that lose players to free agentry. After the players gained the right to become free agents in 1976, the only compensation a team got for a player who signed with a new club was a choice in the amateur draft. Free agents moved freely—and, for them, very profitably—from team to team in the four reentry drafts that followed. But in the 1980 negotiations, the owners demanded that for every player of any stature that a team lost, it would receive a compensating player chosen from among 22 to 25 unprotected players on the signing team's 40-man roster. The players objected vehemently. Fearing that such compensation would restrict their mobility and limit salaries, they voted on April 1 to boycott the last week of spring training and, if no resolution had been reached, to strike on May 23.
After six weeks of no progress on the key issue, the players, on May 15, suggested settling all other matters—pension funding, minimum salary and the like—and submitting compensation to a two-year study (later reduced to one year). No, said the owners, compensation must be settled now; failing that, negotiations should proceed on all issues while the season continued. But the players refused to play after May 22 without a contract.
The two sides met across two Formica-topped tables placed end to end in Suite 1706 of the Doral Inn. Representing the players were Miller, consultant Dick Moss, attorney Don Fehr and various players as their teams came through town. On the owners' side were chief negotiator Ray Grebey, league presidents Lee MacPhail (American) and Chub Feeney (National) and attorney Barry Rona. On the tables between them were large pitchers of water. "We are separated," said one negotiator, "by oceans."
And they remained that way until last Thursday. Under pressure from a handful of owners who strongly favored a compromise, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn convened a 10 a.m. meeting of the owners' 10-man player relations committee. Sitting in Kuhn's boardroom under a photograph of Jackie Robinson, the committeemen finally decided to soften their position and seek a compromise.
"I don't remember who brought up the idea first," says Kuhn, "but we began talking about a study committee [similar to that proposed by the players]. By the afternoon the committee had moved over to the American League office, which is between my office and the Doral. Yes, the sides were getting closer and closer."
Later that afternoon Grebey asked Moffett if the owners' study proposal would be worth presenting. "Trot it out," said Moffett. Grebey did 90 minutes later at a pivotal meeting with Miller and Moffett in Moffett's Doral bedroom.
Grebey's reintroduction of the study committee may have been the turning point of the negotiations, but it did not assure an immediate settlement. As late as 9:30 p.m. Miller still believed only a "small miracle" would prevent a strike. The miracle came after repeated private meetings between the two chief negotiators, who took to avoiding the press by using freight elevators while en route to informal one-on-one sessions. When both negotiating teams reconvened, they made more progress in a few hours than in all the previous months of non-negotiation. At 5 a.m. Grebey and Miller walked into the Crystal Room to announce that a settlement had been reached. Even though they withheld details of the agreement, the message was clearly "Play ball!"
The sudden spurt toward agreement caught everyone else off guard. Following an 8-5 victory over the Mets in Shea Stadium, the Houston Astros sat down to a "strike dinner" in the Shea Diamond Club, courtesy of owner John McMullen. At 12:35 a.m., as the players finished eating their steaks, Pitcher Joe Niekro, the player rep, and McMullen placed phone calls to Miller and Kuhn. Miller, apparently optimistic that a settlement was forthcoming, told Niekro the team bus could leave for Philadelphia, where Houston would open a series the next day. Niekro celebrated by kissing the waitresses, and after thanking McMullen, the players departed.
The new compensation clause—or non-clause might be a better description of it—by no means precludes a strike in 1981 or 1982. The 1980 reentry draft will be conducted under the same minimal compensation rules as the 1976-79 drafts. A joint committee composed of two players and two club officials will convene no later than Aug. 1 to begin studying compensation. By Jan. 1, 1981 they must issue a report—or, more likely, two conflicting opinions—outlining their conclusions. The owners and players will then spend 30 days trying to hammer out a final solution. If no agreement is reached, the owners can unilaterally adopt the last compensation proposal they presented in this spring's negotiations or a less restrictive one for the November 1981 free-agent draft. In response, the players have three options: fully accept the owners' version of compensation; accept it only for the 1981 draft if the owners give them the right to strike in 1982; or strike by June 1, 1981.
The possibility that the owners could invoke compensation in 1981 does not greatly disturb the players, who, as Miller points out, can always strike. If it should come to that, Miller is ready to postpone his long-planned 1981 retirement. "I'll make you a pledge. If that's the situation, I'll still be here," he says.
Peace is wonderful, but it won't last unless agreement is reached on compensation.