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Original Issue

Let's Make a Deal

Despite a whiff in Washington, there's still a chance to save the 1995 baseball season

O.K., you're a major league baseball player, and it's the Fourth of July. You've been idled by the strike for close to 11 months, and your body clock is going off like the alarm on a Porsche parked in Newark. Ever since Memorial Day tee times have been increasingly hard to get. Maybe you didn't mind giving up the last three paychecks of the 1994 season for the good of the cause, but now you've missed six checks this season and you're two months behind in alimony payments. And the new wife is irritable because the manse you built after signing your first multiyear contract 18 months ago still has two rooms without furniture. You really miss the guys in the clubhouse, the road trips too. (And you wonder if that woman you run into every trip to Cincy is sidling up to a replacement player by now.) You're not drinking any more beer than you did any other summer, but instead of sweating it off with a two-hour, 58-minute game in Arlington, Texas, you're starting to look like Mickey Lolich.

Never happen, you say? Wipe that stupid Darryl Strawberry grin off your face. The calendar has turned in the owners' favor. You walked out when it hurt them the most, in mid-August, depriving them of national TV revenue, pennant-drive crowds and the postseason jackpot. Now it's get-even time. The owners are prepared to blow off April, May and June of the 1995 season to get a settlement they can live with. Can you last that long? They don't think so.

And certainly, after what happened last week in Washington, D.C., your position has become less sympathetic. With President Clinton turning up the heat for a settlement, federal mediator William Usery offered a recommendation that actually was more of a wish list than a formal proposal. While the owners were receptive to Usery's overture, your designated hitters, union chief Don Fehr and sidekick Gene Orza, buried Usery's offering as if it were nuclear waste. The bottom line was that the owners apparently were willing to come down from their original demand for a salary cap to a 50% luxury tax on payrolls exceeding $40 million and an arrangement that would eliminate salary arbitration while giving players unlimited free agency after four years instead of six. That would mean you would have to come up from where you were on your last proposal—a 25% tax on payrolls exceeding $65 million. But your union evinced no spirit of compromise. Instead, Orza smeared the 71-year-old Usery, calling him "senile." All of which further steeled the owners for the long haul.

"I was always optimistic through this entire process, but I've never been as frustrated or as disappointed as I was after what happened in Washington," says Colorado Rocky owner Jerry McMorris. "I still feel that way. I don't see any signs now that it's going to change." That comes from a guy who got into the game only three years ago and was untainted by the bitterness that has mushroomed for more than 20 years between the owners and the union. Now he's sick of the union too. The Rockies have sold 32,000 season tickets for 1995, and last week a pair of exhibition games on March 31 and April 1 against the New York Yankees sold out in four hours. On April 7 McMorris is going to play his home opener in a spanking new stadium—with or without you.

"I've always been a moderate, even called soft by some people," says Toronto Blue Jay president Paul Beeston. "But after what happened, I'm fully aboard with the owners. I don't understand why the union would not only turn down the proposal, but do so the way they did and treat Bill Usery the way they did. I have great difficulty having any type of compassion for the players." Now you've lost a guy who over the years had brought a friendly face and reason to dealings with the union. According to one owner, Beeston was considered to be so out of step with his colleagues during the negotiations that some of them would ask him, "What time is the next union meeting?"

Throughout his five-decade involvement in labor relations, Usery has never before stepped into such a morass. This wasn't Greyhound drivers asking for a raise of 85 cents and the company wanting to give 35 cents. This has been about salary caps and luxury taxes and free agency and percentage of the gross and licensing fees. As if Usery didn't already have his hands full, Clinton added to his burdens by imposing a Feb. 6 deadline for a settlement, failing which Usery was to make a recommendation to end the strike. That wasn't the mediator's game. He's a nudger, not an economist. He never got a formal recommendation together before the deadline, and the negotiations blew up.

But as long as the two sides are paying Usery $120,000 a month, why not give him a bit more time to get some help crunching the numbers and put forth a firm settlement proposal? Then Fehr can throw the deal out for consideration when he hits the road soon for meetings with the rank and file. Nobody knows whether Usery's plan will be acceptable to the players—or the owners, for that matter—but this might be the last chance to ensure labor peace in time for Opening Day.