In 1994, when major league owners wiped out the World Series
over a labor dispute with the players, Atlanta Braves president
Stan Kasten said of the negotiations, "We weren't playing for a
win. All we wanted was a tie." It took two years for that
opportunity to come along, and when it did, the owners froze as
badly as a hitter caught looking at a fastball down the middle.
At week's end they had left on the table for two weeks the best
deal they had ever been offered.
Under the proposal, which would carry through 2000 or 2001
(five- and six-year options were on the table), the owners
finally could assure their jittery fans that at least five
straight seasons would be played without interruption by a
lockout or a strike--something that has not occurred in Frank
Thomas's lifetime or since Willie Mays, Al Kaline and Jim
Bunning were still playing.
The players have offered unprecedented concessions. They've
agreed that the player compensation system needs a drag on
salaries (in the form of a luxury tax), that the arbitration
system is flawed (a three-man panel and no maximum pay cuts are
likely to replace the old one-arbitrator system in which cuts
were restricted) and that low-revenue clubs need more handouts
from their wealthier rivals (increased revenue sharing).
When they should have been closing the deal, though, some owners
clucked about having to credit players the 75 days they were on
strike as service time. Other owners worried that the deal
didn't include enough years with the luxury tax in effect. (The
tax would be in place only in 1997, '98 and '99, even if the
deal extended to 2001.) "If this deal does blow up," said an
owner eager to sign the agreement, "we all should be worried
about what's on the other side. If it's not exactly Armageddon,
then it puts us right at the precipice of it."
Does that sound like an attractive alternative? Of course not.
This is a deal the owners should have signed on Aug. 11 and will
sign sooner or later. Minnesota Twins owner Carl Pohlad, for
one, took action over the weekend that indicated the owners are
coming to their senses. One of at least seven owners who
objected to giving players credit for service time, Pohlad
suddenly dropped that protest when he re-signed second baseman
Chuck Knoblauch to a five-year contract worth $30 million.
Knoblauch would have been a free agent after the season if given
service credit. Revenue sharing will help Pohlad pay Knoblauch's
"It's a vote of conscience," said one owner who doesn't like the
idea of service credit but also recognizes a deal has to be done
for the overall good of the game. A reluctance to give service
credit is understandable. That said, service time shouldn't be a
deal breaker. Owners negotiator Randy Levine bargained this far
with service credit on the table. To remove it now would throw
off the balance of the deal.
What really bothers some owners opposed to the deal, more than
service time, is that the luxury tax, which is designed to rein
in the spending of big-revenue clubs, disappears in 2000 and, if
a sixth year is added to the agreement, in 2001 as well. "I'm
afraid that [the lack of a luxury tax] puts us right back to
negotiating off a platform of zero," one owner said, with an eye
toward the bargaining that would take place in five or six
years. "It puts us in a position of doing something stupid to
this game again."
That's one of the reasons why, according to one owner, Chicago
White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf has been telling his colleagues,
"A bad deal is worse than no deal." And it's people such as
Reinsdorf who virtually preclude a real partnership between the
owners and players from ever happening. The antagonism and the
fixation with winning and losing are too deeply rooted to go
away. The danger is that a new generation of baseball owners,
such as Wayne Huizenga of Florida, will be scarred by their
first collective bargaining battles.
That's why you cannot expect labor peace. This is about labor
Better the deal run for seven years with four years of the tax,
but as one owner of a small-revenue club said, "It's a step in
the right direction. I'd like to see a bigger step, but there's
an old saying about building a baseball team: It's not the size
of the first step but the direction."
That kind of reasonable thinking should have been evident more
than two weeks ago. After an agreement is reached, the owners
and the players can focus on growing the game over the next five
or six years. By 2000, as many as 21 of 30 teams will be playing
in stadiums less than 10 years old or will have a new park under
construction. Another round of expansion will have occurred.
Joint ventures between labor and management on marketing and
international baseball--both provided for in this contract--will
have blossomed. And, one hopes, a commissioner who does not
happen to own a team will be in place. The owners already have
wasted too much time getting started on all that.
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: EVANGELOS VIGLIS [Drawing of umpire calling strike against man batting while wearing suit]