Publish date:


Labor negotiations do as much for an alienated fan's interest in
baseball as Jaws did for bodysurfing. Is it safe to go back into
the water? Not without waiting one hour after eating and reading
this warning sign: After three months of stone silence that
followed nine months of name-calling, litigation, a kiss-off of
the President of the United States and the mockery of
replacement baseball, the negotiations between major league
owners and players are about to get more difficult.

"Ab-so-lutely," says emphatic Atlanta Brave president Stan
Kasten. "Now more than ever."

Should the owners finally get around to reopening talks shortly
after the All-Star break (what we need is someone to tell them
to quit dawdling and get back in the batter's box), they plan to
ask for a tighter choke on salaries than they did in March, when
the two sides last met. "A lot of teams are digging in more and
more as this goes on," Kasten says. "The economics have changed
too much since March." The essence of that new economics:
Attendance is running 20% behind last year's.

One group of owners, led by Jerry Reinsdorf of the Chicago White
Sox, actually is pushing to put the salary cap back on the
table. Even a self-described optimist like John Harrington, the
Boston Red Sox general partner and captain of the owners'
negotiating team, can only hope to get a deal done "maybe by
Thanksgiving or into December."

"It is scary," says San Francisco Giant president Peter Magowan.
"On the other hand, the players ought to be able to see it: The
revenue isn't there anymore."

The danger is that the second half of the 1995 season, promising
as it may be on the field, would be poisoned by a rerun of the
dueling press conferences and finger-pointing by both sides on
the nightly news. "If we go back and make the same mistakes of
the past," says Texas Ranger president Tom Schieffer, "if
negotiations start again and become acrimonious again, it will
kill us. It will turn the fans' focus back toward the
negotiations and away from baseball."

Both sides understand this much: The 1995 season must be played
out through the World Series without a work stoppage, and a
long-term agreement is the most essential element to winning
back fans. "We have to let them know there will be uninterrupted
baseball for several years," says outfielder Darren Lewis of the
Giants. "We need that to get them emotionally involved again."

However, the attempt to get such a deal, if it is not conducted
with speed and decorum, could turn off many fans for good. "It
worries me not knowing who's in charge on the owners' side,"
says New York Yankee pitcher Jack McDowell. "If Jerry Reinsdorf
is still in charge and people are still following him after he
led them down a dead end, then we're all in trouble. If we don't
get a deal by the time we go into the off-season, it's going to
be a mess again."

Trouble is, as Philadelphia Phillie president Bill Giles says,
"we don't know what we want to negotiate." Milwaukee Brewer
owner-replacement commissioner Bud Selig, who has done more for
long-distance service than Candace Bergen, once could brag of
coaxing the 27 other owners into his own tight little calling
circle. But that solidarity began to break apart on March 31
when U.S. district court judge Sonia Sotomayor granted an
injunction against the owners, restoring terms of the old
collective bargaining agreement and putting the players back on
the field.

The owners have split into three groups: the hard-liners, who
want a salary cap more than ever now that they are suffering
through another year of the old system--and this time with vastly
reduced revenues; the moderates, who would consider a one- or
two-year rollover deal while trying to negotiate a drag of some
sort on salaries; and the doves, who are ready to sign just
about anything. Some of those doves, all of whom hail from
big-money markets, want Selig and his small-revenue agenda out
of the way.

"There are clubs that have lost confidence in Bud," Harrington
says. "Maybe it's only two or three. They'll never have a
majority." Likewise, no other group can muster the
three-quarters majority (21 votes) needed to back a deal.

Says Toronto Blue Jay pitcher David Cone, the union's alternate
American League player rep, "How do you negotiate with three
different factions?"

"It's up to Bud and the negotiating committee to figure out a
position and sell it," Harrington says. "Bring it to the
membership and try to collect the votes."

"And then," says Gene Orza, associate general counsel for the
union, "they'll say, 'Here, we worked so hard on this, you have
to accept it.' We should have gone back to bargaining the minute
Judge Sotomayor's decision came down. Is it harder now to get a
deal? Not from our standpoint."

The owners, though, think otherwise because the revenue pie to
be cut up is smaller: down to about $1.4 billion this year from
$1.9 billion in 1993, the last full season. "Our first offer [in
June 1994] guaranteed the players $1 billion," Kasten says.
"They'd take that in a minute now. There's no way we could offer

Moreover, the small-revenue teams, who are at the heart of this
disagreement, appear to need welfare reform more than ever. At
week's end the Giants, the Pittsburgh Pirates and the San Diego
Padres combined had drawn fewer fans than the Colorado Rockies.
The Milwaukee Brewers and the Minnesota Twins were attracting
fewer than 15,000 fans a game, with worse crowds ahead as the
two teams drift further out of the pennant race.

"It's very important," Giles says, "to have an agreement where
the San Diego fans, the Minnesota fans, the Pittsburgh fans can
look ahead to 1996 and think their teams can have some sort of
hope of contending. Right now they don't have any."

Fact is, the Padres, who are contending this year--they were
just 1-1/2 games out of first in the National League West as of
Sunday--and the Pirates and the Twins each have had more
winning seasons in the 1990s than Giles's own well-heeled
Phillies or the prosperous Chicago Cubs and New York Mets. And
the Montreal Expos, while hanging on the brink of contention,
were the only National League team that had not suffered
poststrike fallout at the gate. Their attendance was running 2%
higher than it was for the same number of home dates in 1994.
That raises the question of whether money or talent is the real
currency of competition. "Having money doesn't assure you
winning," says Cub president Andy MacPhail. "But not having
money assures you problems. What I see is that the chasm between
the haves and have-nots has magnified."

It seems a lesson in ancient history now to recall that in March
the owners and players actually agreed on the framework of a
deal (a luxury tax) while showing slight momentum in the number
crunching: When last the two sides bargained, the owners were
demanding a 50% tax on that portion of a team's payroll that
exceeded $44 million, and the players were willing to accept a
25% tax on any amount over $50 million. The owners now repudiate
that. "You could take the exact midpoint between those numbers,
and we wouldn't be interested anymore," says the chief executive
of a large-revenue team. "The fact is, the market has changed."

"And next year," Magowan says, "will be worse." The owners
foresee less money available to players in 1996, when it's
likely even more free agents than last off-season will be trying
to get pieces of it.

"Now they want the jackpot," Cone says of the owners. "They're
going for the trifecta: a salary cap, publically financed new
stadiums--they've got plans for 11 of them--and a new TV deal.
What we need is a long-term labor deal. After everything we've
been through, we're back to square one."

COLOR PHOTO:DAVID LIAM KYLE Major league attendance is down 20% -- and even more at parks like Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Stadium. [overhead view of lone fan sitting among rows of empty seats]