BASEBALL / ROSS NEWHAN : It's Crisis Again as Eighth Work Stoppage Looms

As always, it is difficult to know what or whom to believe in the owners' approach to collective bargaining.

It is harder yet to comprehend their tactics in the current talks or to accept their claims of unity on the salary cap and revenue sharing.

This much is certain:

Having voted on Dec. 12, 1992, to reopen negotiations a year early, ostensibly to remove the crisis atmosphere that always surrounds the talks, they have now blown that concept and created another crisis by failing to make even one definitive proposal on the major economic issues.

The clock is ticking. The owners and players are on a collision course again, heading for their eighth work stoppage in the eight negotiations since 1972.

The union, left without a substantive proposal and fearing that the owners will declare an impasse after the season and unilaterally impose a salary-cap system that would destroy free agency and arbitration, is expected to set a strike date, either at a meeting of its executive board in Chicago on June 16 or at a meeting in Pittsburgh on July 11, the day before the All-Star game.

It is unlikely that the union will wipe out the All-Star game, but a strike could begin as early as July 18, some believe.

"We're not interested in striking, but we may have to," Gene Orza, the union's associate general counsel, reiterated from New York.

"This is just one more example of the owners believing it's in their best interest to negotiate in a crisis atmosphere. As long as there is a crisis going on, they believe that they can test the strength of the players. Their attitude seems to be, 'Let's force them to strike and see what happens.' Consider the history. They've come away from every stoppage saying, 'If we had just waited a little longer, we might have gotten what we wanted.' "

What the owners want is a system of revenue sharing among themselves, but only if it's linked to a salary cap that the union views as restrictive and unnecessary in an industry producing annual revenue of $1.7 billion.

The question is, how badly do the owners want it? The big markets hesitantly but finally agreed to revenue sharing at a January owners' meeting in Florida. They have yet to tie it to a salary-cap proposal that can be taken to the union but are expected to do that during a three-day meeting starting Tuesday in Cincinnati.

The proposal will be given to the union on June 14 and revealed publicly at a subsequent news conference.

Richard Ravitch, the owners' chief negotiator, said that in his judgment "the owners are more unified than ever," but the perception of many others is that sharp divisions remain between the big and small markets.

The perception is that the big markets, including the Dodgers, Boston Red Sox, Toronto Blue Jays and New York Mets and Yankees, could live with the status quo and are reluctant to force a prolonged work stoppage at a time when they are initiating new pennant and playoff formats and trying to get their new TV partnership--that makes its debut with the All-Star game--off the ground.

Ravitch might finally forge his salary-cap proposal in Cincinnati, but it might not be easy. In the meantime, he blames the union for the delay.

"In the last negotiations (1990), the clubs came to the table with a definitive proposal and the union said, 'Why didn't we work this out together? Why have you made up your mind already?' " Ravitch said. "So this time we came ready to discuss the issues and work on them jointly and the union said, 'Where's your proposal?' That meant we had to go back and formulate one."

Orza laughed and called that revisionist history worthy of the Soviet Union.

"What we said the last time is what we said this time," he said. "We told them that if they're truly interested in a partnership, let us in on the ground floor, involve us in planning and policy from the start, but it never happens, and it's too late to suggest that a partnership is viable.

"I mean, their idea of a partnership is to say, 'This is the way the world should look and we need a salary cap to implement it.' They want the players to help them implement a system that restricts the market and economic growth. Some partnership."

So what's new?

Asked if he was amazed by the 18-month wait for a proposal, Orza said it was consistent with the owners' history, with their longstanding hope of dividing the union and their belief that it will only happen in a crisis.

"I don't consider it puzzling or amazing," he said. "I consider it scary."

DRAFT FOLIO

--The Pittsburgh Pirates apparently knew what they were doing when they drafted high school pitchers Dustin Hermanson in the 39th round and Paul Wilson in the 57th in 1991. Unfortunately for the Pirates, they signed neither, and Hermanson and Wilson proved that they, too, knew what they were doing by going on to Kent State and Florida State, respectively.

Wilson was the first player chosen in Thursday's draft, by the New York Mets, and Hermanson was the third, by the San Diego Padres. They will probably get signing bonuses of $900,000 or more.

The only other time the Mets had a No. 1 was in 1966, when they selected catcher Steve Chilcott. The Oakland Athletics, drafting second, then picked an Arizona State outfielder named Reggie Jackson. Chilcott never played in the majors, but the Mets are confident Wilson will.

They see Wilson--144 strikeouts in 125 innings this year--joining Bobby Jones, Bill Palsiper and Chris Roberts, another Florida State product, in a 1996 rotation rebuilt in the country hardball image of Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan, Jerry Koosman and Jon Matlack.

"I'll be very disappointed if three of our five starters are not home-grown by 1996," club Vice President Gerry Hunsicker said.

Florida State pitching coach Jamey Shoup said it shouldn't take that long in Wilson's case.

"He's so far advanced that he'd be wasting his time going to the minors," Shoup said.

--The Dodgers will deny it, but their decision to make catcher Paul Konerko of Chaparral High in Scottsdale, Ariz., their No. 1 pick seems to indicate they are disappointed with the development of catcher Ryan Luzinski, a sandwich pick between the first and second rounds in 1992, and may intend to move either Konerko or Mike Piazza to another position at some point, depending on Konerko's development.

They clearly don't need another catcher in the immediate future or they would have selected Georgia Tech's Jason Varitek, Baseball America's college player of the year. Varitek, who could be in the Seattle Mariners' lineup by '96 or sooner, was the 14th player chosen. Konerko was the 13th.

"You can't compare them," Dodger scouting director Terry Reynolds said. "Varitek is four years older. One's a man and one's a boy in terms of their baseball experience and development. However, I believe Paul is ahead of where Varitek was when he came out of high school as a third baseman-catcher."

STRAW POLL

The Boston Red Sox's acknowledged interest in Darryl Strawberry, Ron Gant and Larry Walker has waned some with the acquisition of outfielder Wes Chamberlain, whom they got from the Philadelphia Phillies for pitcher Paul Quantrill and outfielder Billy Hatcher.

The Phillies needed Quantrill to bolster their injury-riddled pitching staff and had wearied of Chamberlain's platoon complaints and unreliability. Chamberlain missed a team meeting two days before the trade and arrived only an hour before the season opener, among other sins. The Red Sox, however, had gone 11-12 in 23 games before the trade, were using Tim Naehring--seven for his last 47 through Thursday--in the cleanup spot and had Andre Dawson, John Valentin and Scott Fletcher on the disabled list.

They were desperate to strengthen the offense and liked Chamberlain's part-time numbers.

"He's 28, coming up to his prime," General Manager Dan Duquette said. "If he can get 500 at-bats, we think we have a very, very good player. We also didn't think (Quantrill) could ever step up and be a dominant reliever, and we didn't think he had enough pitches to be a starter."

The San Francisco Giants, meanwhile, continue to leave the door open for Strawberry and Gant, talking informally to agent Eric Goldschmidt, who represents both. The Giants stranded 34 runners in the three-game sweep by the Atlanta Braves this week and finally called up first baseman J.R. Phillips, despite his 57 strikeouts in 191 at-bats at Phoenix.

General Manager Bob Quinn said, "If the club doesn't start stepping up the pace, this is just the beginning. How does the song go--I've only just begun. I'm not going to sit back and idly watch this club, with all this talent, fall six or seven games back. I'm not going to sit and watch Rome burn."

Manager Dusty Baker has known Strawberry since he was at Crenshaw High and thinks his recovery and availability are worth watching.

"A lot of clubs are going to be interested," he said. "He's only 31. The question is, does he have his life in order? It's a matter of when."

The same can be said of the Giants' inconsistent offense.

Of the missed opportunities, Baker said, "It wears on your heart. You feel like your dog died. Maybe everyone in San Francisco should light a candle for us."

LIGHTS OUT

There was some truth to the right-left spin that the Braves tried to put on the Deion Sanders-Roberto Kelly trade, but there was also truth to the belief that Neon was starting to wear thin, missing meetings and schedules and generally marching to his own beat. General Manager John Schuerholz talked to him about it and wrote to him about it but wasn't sure how much was getting through and apparently didn't like the way it was headed. Schuerholz was particularly concerned because he had customized center field for Sanders by allowing Otis Nixon to leave as a free agent and had given Sanders a three-year, $11-million contract. The clubhouse reaction to Sanders' departure said a lot.

Said Tom Glavine, of the events Sanders skipped: "I'd be lying if I said there wasn't a certain amount of 'Why do we have to be here and he doesn't?' "

Tony Tarasco added, "I wouldn't say there are players that didn't like Deion. They could only take so much of him sometimes."

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