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BASEBALL PLAYERS ON STRIKE / A SEASON HANGS IN THE BALANCE : Time’s Up on National Pastime : BASEBALL / ROSS NEWHAN : Salary Cap Is Sticking Point

How long will baseball’s latest work stoppage last? How will it be resolved?

There are enough theories to satisfy the most dedicated mystery buff.

This much is certain:

--The players will never accept the owners’ proposed salary cap. A negotiated settlement can become possible only if the owners find a way to save face and withdraw it.

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--The owners, divided and defeated in the seven previous stoppages since 1972, have asked for so much this time that they will assuredly emerge from any negotiated settlement with a measure of satisfaction and economic gain.

--Both owners and players face significant financial pressure, but the union’s winning streak translates to unquestioned unanimity. The owners’ alleged resolve is far more suspect, as underscored by the criticisms leveled at chief negotiator Richard Ravitch by New York Yankee owner George Steinbrenner, Baltimore Oriole owner Peter Angelos and Cincinnati Red owner Marge Schott on Thursday.

Less certain is the following:

There are probably nine bigger-market or bigger-revenue clubs, some biting the bullet on increased revenue sharing but only if it is tied to a salary cap, that would just as soon forget the whole thing and continue under the current system--if the choice is that or a prolonged strike.

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The nine are the Atlanta Braves, Toronto Blue Jays, Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees and Mets, Texas Rangers, Colorado Rockies, Orioles and Dodgers, whose owner, Peter O’Malley, insists publicly that he fully supports Ravitch and the pursuit of a new compensation system.

A settlement must be approved by 21 of the 28 teams, meaning eight smaller-market or smaller-revenue teams can hold up any agreement that does not include a salary cap.

Seven clubs definitely fit that category--the Seattle Mariners, San Diego Padres, Milwaukee Brewers, Kansas City Royals, Minnesota Twins, Pittsburgh Pirates and Montreal Expos, who have mixed emotions in a now-threatened season in which they have produced baseball’s best record.

That leaves 12 other teams--some big, some small, some in the middle--currently lining up in public support of the salary-cap proposal. But they may be vulnerable to arm twisting by the bigger-market nine if there is a mutiny aimed at overcoming the minority rule and reaching a settlement by Labor Day, as some think possible.

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The 12 who could go either way are the Angels, Chicago Cubs and White Sox, St. Louis Cardinals, San Francisco Giants, Philadelphia Phillies, Houston Astros, Cincinnati Reds, Detroit Tigers, Florida Marlins, Cleveland Indians and Oakland Athletics.

The Orioles, Yankees, Red Sox and Blue Jays are believed to be the clubs most likely to lead any early attempt to compromise the salary-cap proposal or overthrow Ravitch, who begins the strike insisting that not one club has called to suggest modifying the proposal and who doesn’t have the authority to do it himself.

The history of the often splintered and self-centered owners in these confrontations--would Steinbrenner have broken from the pack Thursday if his Yankees weren’t leading the American League East, and would newcomer Angelos have opened up vocally if he hadn’t spent $173 million to buy the Orioles and they weren’t regularly selling out Camden Yards?--suggests they will crack at some point.

However, it can also be theorized that this has been a well-orchestrated plan designed ultimately to produce an impasse, enabling the owners to unilaterally implement their new system, a sort of all-for-one, line-in-the-sand gambit aimed at finally breaking the union.

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The owners, after all, refrained from hiring a commissioner who might interfere with the plan. The office has been vacant since Sept. 7, 1992. They boxed the union into a corner by waiting 18 months after reopening the collective negotiations before presenting their proposal.

And although they will absorb substantial financial and public relations hits if baseball is shut down until 1995 or beyond, the price may not be that great when weighed against the opportunity to install a system that includes the cap, elimination of salary arbitration and modification--the union calls it death--of free agency.

The owners have $140 million in TV revenue at stake in postseason play but that’s only $5 million per club, a small down payment, they may believe, for acquiring the salary limitations and “cost certainty” of their proposal.

How the union would react to a unilateral move isn’t clear. The players have never been pushed that far. They could protest to the National Labor Relations Board or renew their strike at the start of the 1995 season, but . . .

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Would they have signed new contracts under the new system? Would a unilaterally implemented system take effect immediately or be phased in? Can the owners satisfactorily prove there is an impasse?

It is also uncertain where a compromise rests if the owners don’t take it to impasse and there is pressure from the bigger-market clubs for an early settlement.

The obvious speculation rests with this scenario: The owners take salary cap off the table. The players then give up salary arbitration in return for unrestricted free agency after three or four years of major league service, rather than the current six.

Would the players agree to give up arbitration? Sources indicate that they would if they were certain they were getting an earlier free agency uninhibited by any “right of first refusal” restriction or threatened by collusion.

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At this point, however, Ravitch says that elimination of arbitration alone won’t solve the industry’s economic problems or provide cost certainty for the clubs.

And Don Fehr, executive director of the players’ union, says he doesn’t expect the clubs to isolate arbitration because arbitration actually works to the benefit of the small markets. By tendering arbitration, Fehr says, they are pretty much able to estimate costs and retain players who might otherwise leave if there were earlier free agency and no arbitration.

There is also the possibility, urged Thursday by Angelos, that the owners will pledge not to implement their system at the end of the season if the players return to work and pledge not to strike through 1995. Ravitch, however, says the owners have already discussed that and chose not to give up the impasse option. Fehr suggests that it is too late in the game for pledges.

Thus, the preemptive strike by a union that believes this is what the owners wanted from the start.

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How long will it last? How will it end? Only time will tell. Perhaps, a very long time.


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