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The Owners Are United--on Paper : Baseball: But as strike continues, there might be pressure on rift between money makers and money losers.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Baseball fans have often bemoaned the quick-change rosters in the era of free agency, but a scorecard also is required to identify the owners.

Only 10 owners remain from the 50-day players’ strike of 1981. Ten clubs have changed ownership since 1990 alone.

The business might be troubled economically, as owners insist in their pursuit of a new compensation system that has prompted the players to strike again, but there never seems to be a shortage of buyers--for even the most fragile franchises.

Only the strike has delayed the sale of the San Diego Padres, for instance, and a group headed by former Baltimore Oriole president Larry Lucchino is trying to buy the allegedly destitute Pittsburgh Pirates for a reported $85 million.

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The Baltimore Orioles, a cash cow since moving into Camden Yards, went for a record $173 million at auction last year, and groups in Phoenix and St. Petersburg can’t seem to wait for 1998 expansion, although the entry fee probably will be $30-$40 million more than the $95 million paid by the Colorado Rockies and Florida Marlins in joining the billionaires’ club last year.

Jerry Colangelo of the NBA’s Suns heads the Phoenix group. He has said that baseball is currently experiencing its Armaggedon and should have a better system in place by ’98.

Armaggedon?

If so, how do the troops line up? Who are the generals among the owners?

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The 28 clubs generally fall into the categories of bigger, smaller and middle markets--although market size is not the sole measurement. Nor is the categorization based entirely on the revenue-sharing formula that serves as the foundation of the owners’ salary-cap proposal.

There are believed to be nine bigger-market or high-revenue clubs that would prefer playing under the current or slightly modified system if the choice is that or a prolonged stoppage. They are the Orioles, Rockies, Dodgers, Atlanta Braves, Toronto Blue Jays, Boston Red Sox, NewYork Yankees and Mets and Texas Rangers.

There are seven smaller-market or low-revenue teams unlikely to waver in their support of the salary cap. They are the Padres, Pirates, Seattle Mariners, Milwaukee Brewers, Kansas City Royals, Minnesota Twins and Montreal Expos.

Then there are 12 teams in the middle, strongly supportive of the salary cap but vulnerable, perhaps, to arm twisting by the bigger-market clubs if that group begins to push for settlement.

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They are the Angels, Chicago Cubs and White Sox, St. Louis Cardinals, San Francisco Giants, Detroit Tigers, Philadelphia Phillies, Oakland Athletics, Houston Astros, Cincinnati Reds, Florida Marlins and Cleveland Indians.

Twenty-one of the 28 clubs must approve a bargaining agreement. Negotiator Richard Ravitch and acting commissioner Bud Selig orchestrated the change from the previous majority rule. Only eight smaller-market teams can now hold up any settlement that does not include a salary cap.

The change was approved unanimously by the owners, which some might regret, because there are only so many arms for the bigger markets to twist in an attempt to get 21 votes and a quick settlement.

Has that process begun? Not in a formal sense, according to sources.

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It is too early for the kind of capitulation that has undermined the owners in previous negotiations. In fact, a management source said, it is surprisingly tranquil.

“You have a couple of loose cannons, but otherwise I don’t see any unrest or unease at all,” said the source, who declined to be identified.

However, an agent familiar with the situation disagreed.

“The owners are so fractionalized that it’s difficult to know what’s going on or how this will end,” he said.

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Selig has tried to mask the big-market discontent with the hard-line approach, refusing to let owners join Ravitch at the bargaining table and re-implementing, for the most part, a gag rule against criticism of Ravitch and the direction of negotiations.

The owners know, however, the union will never accept a cap, and it’s doubtful Selig can continue to silence George Steinbrenner, who has a $45-million-plus cable deal and his New York Yankees on the verge of their first postseason appearance since 1981, and/or Peter Angelos, a spitfire attorney who was the big money in the purchase of the sold out Orioles?

Angelos built a fortune winning claims on behalf of asbestos victims. He already has turned the Orioles’ front office inside out, hopes to lure General Manager John Schuerholz from the Braves, gave Manager John Oates a two-year extension and then made the 1994 season a living hell for Oates with demands and second-guessing. He is said to be privately disenchanted with the Selig-Ravitch-Jerry Reinsdorf leadership.

Angelos compared revenue sharing to welfare last week and said the owners should open their books and turn them over to an independent economist to determine if a salary cap is necessary. He also said the owners should pledge not to unilaterally implement their salary cap if the players pledge to return to work and not strike through 1995, getting the game back on the field.

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Reinsdorf, the White Sox owner and a close friend of Selig, responded that Angelos is new to baseball and doesn’t know much about it.

Sources confirm that there is no love lost between Angelos and Reinsdorf, an architect of Fay Vincent’s ouster, which left owners in position to conduct these negotiations without interference from a commissioner. Angelos, however, is a man who doesn’t easily accept limitations or gag rules, and more than Steinbrenner, who does not have a large constituency among the other owners, Angelos might emerge as a big-market ringleader.

“I think it’s possible to build a coalition, but I don’t know how effective that would be in the near term,” Angelos said Monday. “The most important thing is that we need other owners involved in the high council and at the bargaining table. Then, maybe, there would be some different opinions and approaches.”

Four other big-market owners might become more involved if there is a push for 21 votes and a compromised settlement, sources say.

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They are Fred Wilpon of the Mets, John Harrington of the Red Sox, Peter O’Malley of the Dodgers and Jerry McMorris of the Rockies.

Trucking magnate McMorris, whose Rockies were on a pace to break their all-time attendance record of last year, is an advocate of moving troubled franchises and said last week that the salary-cap issue should be negotiable.

Harrington previously worked with the players union on realignment and the new playoff format, and might become a conciliatory voice between Ravitch and Don Fehr, executive director of the union.

O’Malley insists that he supports Ravitch and the need for a new system, but consistently stood with the big markets during the 12 bitter months required to negotiate a revenue-sharing formula and has questioned the wisdom of sharing with poorly operated franchises if there are no safeguards to ensure proper management.

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Which of the middle-market owners might be tempted to join a big-market coalition in pushing for an end to the strike?

Marge Schott of the Reds and Drayton McLane of the Astros are said to be firmly behind the salary cap proposal, but wouldn’t they like to see their teams renew their division dogfight?

Richard Jacobs is also said to be in the salary cap camp, but wouldn’t he like to see his Indians extend Cleveland’s renaissance by reaching the playoffs? Mike Illitch of the Tigers insists the compensation system needs to be changed but has the resources of his pizza chain to call on if the system doesn’t change.

The Tribune Co., which owns the Cubs, has cable rights to seven major league teams and could be vulnerable to pressure either way, as could the Cardinals. St. Louis’ Anheuser-Busch has advertising ties to 27 of the 28 teams.

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Jackie Autry claims the Angels have lost $16 million over the last five years and her club falls into the small - market category primarily because of one of the worst stadium leases in baseball. However, even other owners have questioned the small - market status of a team playing in Southern California, and the players union holds up the Angels as a classic example of their contention that many of the game’s alleged economic problems stem from bad management. In any case, it’s unlikely that the Angels can be influenced to join a big-market coalition, although Autry has said the game can survive under the current system.

It’s also uncertain where the influential Reinsdorf stands. He had said, in what may have been a self-serving statement, that he could live with the status quo, but once the strike started he became a hawk. It is almost certain he would not break with Selig.

And Selig, despite scattered comments by Steinbrenner, Angelos, Schott and McMorris last week, said the owners worked too hard putting their proposal together over a two-year period to suddenly throw it away.

“We know the players are united as they have always been united,” Selig said. “This time the owners are equally united, and it would be a tragic miscalculation for anyone on either side to think differently. We have to get past all that and make a deal. I can assure you that not one owner questions the need for change in the system.”

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If so, Selig was asked, why do so many keep buying into an allegedly troubled industry?

“I don’t think it’s a matter of due diligence or anyone failing to do their homework,” he said. “You’re talking about people who have been wonderfully successful in almost everything they do and thinking they can bring a different approach to baseball and make it work.

“Hope springs eternal, but they come in with all that hope and expectation and are quickly stunned and dismayed by what they find. Drayton McLane would tell you that unless the system changes, he can’t make it. And it’s not just the small or middle markets, it’s the big markets as well.

“I mean, the despair is not confined to a few local areas, it’s everywhere, and you couldn’t move all the clubs because there’d be no place to move them. If that’s the answer, it won’t work.”

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Twelve to 14 teams will lose money this year, according to management projections. Still, any “For Sale” signs won’t be up long.


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