About 175 players and several dozen agents, in separate meetings with officials of the baseball players' union at an airport hotel Thursday in Los Angeles, maintained what has been the national pattern of support and solidarity for the union's ongoing signing freeze and resistance to management's salary cap.
"I don't detect any weaknesses," Dodger catcher Mike Piazza said of the players' unanimity. "We're prepared to ride out the storm for as long as it takes."
How long will that be? Piazza couldn't predict, but he said that hopes for a bargaining settlement that would return striking major leaguers to the field before the opening of spring camps in mid-February didn't appear bright. On the other hand, he added, the owners' attempt to open the season with replacement players struck him as an "exercise in futility."
Said union leader Donald Fehr: "The owners will do what they do, but I don't think anyone will be fooled by a team of players not good enough to be on a major league roster. If they are (fooled), it will be pretty close to consumer fraud."
The union has updated about 600 players on the current tour, stopping previously in Tampa, Fla., Chicago, New York and Puerto Rico, with Dallas, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic still on the itinerary.
Eugene Orza, associate general counsel, said the support of players and agents has been gratifying, and that the current signing freeze probably will stay in place until there is a bargaining agreement.
"The players' reaction to what the owners have done is intellectual to an extent, but largely visceral," Orza said. "The agents are much more dispassionate, but they all realize that the owners' position is designed to do nothing more than break the union."
Agents were warned again Thursday that they could be penalized to the extent of decertification if they represent a replacement player.
In the meantime, the union is basically in a holding pattern, waiting either for Congress, the National Labor Relations Board or both to turn up the heat on the owners, possibly forcing management into a compromising position at the negotiating table.
Fehr said the union is prepared to bargain any time there is something to bargain about, but he has not been approached by either the owners or mediator William J. Usery.
Fehr also said that the impact of baseball's antitrust exemption is clear in the hockey settlement, where the owners could not emulate the baseball owners and implement the salary cap or equivalent tax they desired because they are restricted by the antitrust laws.
Of that settlement, Fehr said it was a positive that the cap came off the table "but no one in North America could expect the baseball players to accept a free-agency system that starts at 31 or 32 years of age," as the hockey players have.
Said Orza: "The biggest benefit of the hockey settlement is that I no longer have to hear (acting Commissioner) Bud Selig and other owners give me the ultimate non sequitur of these negotiations, which was, 'We want a salary cap, and you'll note that all the other sports playing have a salary cap.' "