With the first exhibition game scheduled for Wednesday night and the debate over minor leaguers' participation a volatile issue in most camps, negotiators for baseball's owners and striking players will attempt to focus on the key issues of their seven-month labor dispute as they resume bargaining today for the first time since Feb. 7.
"I'm hoping we can sit down, close the door, stay with it and get this thing resolved," owner Jerry McMorris of the Colorado Rockies said.
"If both sides are willing to do some hard, earnest bargaining, I think it can be over in a day or two.
"We've been fooling around long enough with the peripheral issues. Once the games start and there's further acrimony, it will be even more difficult to produce a settlement."
A day or two? That may be unlikely, but there seems to be a degree of optimism as special mediator William J. Usery resumes the talks in Scottsdale, Ariz.
Maybe it's because acting Commissioner Bud Selig will lead a scaled down owners' delegation for the first time.
Maybe it's because a two day discussion of the procedural issues in Milwaukee last week featured an unprecedented display of civility by the two sides.
Maybe it's because many view this week as a last window if the season is going to open on schedule with major league players instead of replacements.
Said John Harrington, the Boston Red Sox chief executive officer:
"I think we have to have the regular players on the field by March 13 or 14, which means a settlement by the 3rd, 4th or 5th because there are several hundred players still unsigned."
Harrington, McMorris and lawyers Chuck O'Connor and Rob Manfred will join Selig on the owners' team. Some of union leader Donald Fehr's staff will be in Florida today and Tuesday for meetings with minor league players. Another will be held in Phoenix on Wednesday.
Selig said last week's Milwaukee meetings with Fehr and assistant counsel Lauren Rich "were the most positive I've been to in my whole career."
However, he offered no prediction--"we have such a long way to go"--and wasn't sure his presence would change the results.
"I haven't had the feeling before now that my presence would help or would accelerate the process," he said. "This is my eighth labor stoppage. You see it from all sides and develop a feeling as to when you might make a difference or not. There's no personal acrimony between Don Fehr and myself. Maybe I can articulate the issues so that we can come to better understanding. Maybe whatever I communicate can help break the logjam."
Said Fehr: "I think it's important that Bud's involved, but let's be clear. . . . This all started with the firing of Fay Vincent. They haven't wanted a commissioner involved, which is why they haven't hired one."
The issue still remains cost control and the owners desire for a payroll mechanism that will slow salary growth. Amid the optimism, there is the reality that the union will continue to oppose any rate tax that works as a salary cap.
In the meantime, the National Labor Relations Board, expected to bring new and potentially significant sanctions against the owners soon, also remains a player in a complicated situation best resolved by a negotiated settlement.
However, optimism and civility aside, there are those who wonder if this new attempt won't be sidetracked by a heated confrontation on the minor league issue. The union contends that minor leaguers who play in exhibition games are strikebreakers. Most clubs expect their minor leaguers to play.
Even on the eve of the new talks, the hopeful McMorris said the union's stance was consistent with its lack of concern for minor leaguers.
"They're not concerned about anybody's job but their own," McMorris said of the union.
Responded Fehr: "Major leaguers are losing millions of dollars in this dispute to maintain a system whose principal beneficiaries will be those who come after them. That is the way it has always been for players, both young and old. We are confident that all the minor leaguers who see for themselves a future in the major leagues will also see that."