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Union Says 835 Are Free Agents : Baseball: All unsigned players allegedly affected by owners’ changes.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The baseball players’ union, in a letter to management lawyer Chuck O’Connor, said Thursday that all unsigned players are entitled to unrestricted free agency because owners improperly changed work conditions and contract language when they implemented the salary-cap system on Dec. 23.

The union’s interpretation could affect about 835 players, although about 200 of them already are eligible for unrestricted free agency.

“We’ll pursue this in court, in arbitration or any venue the owners desire,” union lawyer Eugene Orza said, adding that clubs could be liable for treble damages.

The immediate ramification, however, is unclear.

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The union ordered a signing freeze when the owners implemented the salary cap and has said it will be maintained during a two-week, seven-city series of meetings with players and agents starting today in Chicago. In addition, flooding the market with more than 800 free agents would only restrict salary growth.

O’Connor dismissed the threat, saying: “It’s simply another way for the union to say it disagrees with the implementation of the salary cap and the changes in contract language.

“It’s designed to shake up the clubs, but it’s something we anticipated. We probably will use the letter as further evidence of the union’s refusal to bargain collectively.”

In his letter, union leader Donald Fehr said existing contracts require owners to offer players the same language specified in the expired collective bargaining agreement and that clubs can no longer renew the contracts of players unsigned on March 1, since contracts tendered on Dec. 23 “are materially different from the 1994 contracts.”

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Some of the union’s argument is similar to the 1975 presentation in which it won free agency for Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally, shattering the owners’ contention that the renewal clause in the standard contract rolled over every year. Arbitrator Peter Seitz ruled that the clause represented only a one-year renewal. A federal court upheld that decision, leading to the free-agency and arbitration systems.

The latest development is certain to cause another legal confrontation. Each side charged the other with unfair labor practice in filings with the National Labor Relations Board on Dec. 26. A decision by the NLRB on whether to issue complaints is expected about Feb. 1. If the agency finds for the union, it could ask a federal judge for a preliminary injunction against the cap.

In other developments:

--White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta said President Clinton was concerned about the absence of negotiating progress and wants to bring “whatever kind of influence he can” to improve the situation.

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Panetta said Clinton has asked for a briefing in the next few days, but management and union sources said they did not know what more Clinton can do except to keep special mediator William J. Usery involved.

Fehr updated Labor Secretary Robert Reich on the aborted negotiations Tuesday, and acting Commissioner Bud Selig is due to meet with Reich next week.

--Management’s operations committee met by phone again to continue shaping guidelines pertaining to the use of replacement players if the union is still on strike when spring camps open in mid-February.

“I would hope that by the end of next week we’ll have things in pretty good focus,” said Dodger Vice President Fred Claire, who participated in the call.

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