As the relationship between baseball’s owners and players deteriorated again Saturday, the role of Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf and attorney Robert Ballow again came under examination. Are they prominent players already--as the union believes--or will they soon be?
During a particularly low and frustrating point on Thursday, acting Commissioner Bud Selig and new chief negotiator Jerry McMorris, moderate owner of the Colorado Rockies, had threatened to turn the negotiating reins over to the hard-line owner and attorney.
On Friday, before union leader Donald Fehr said the union could be flexible on a payroll tax and would accept management’s revenue-sharing plan, and before the talks went backward again Saturday, Reinsdorf said he would probably reject an invitation to head the negotiating team.
“I’ve steadfastly refused to be part of it because Don Fehr hasn’t been interested in negotiating,” Reinsdorf said. “I’ve asked off. I don’t want to waste my time. I’m deeply appreciative of the effort Jerry and the others have made, but I’ve been unwilling to commit to what has been a fruitless effort. If I saw the union was sincere and Bud Selig asked, then I’d serve, but I haven’t seen that.”
The union suspects that Reinsdorf has been pulling strings from the start and that his and Ballow’s public emergence would only underscore their belief that Reinsdorf controls enough owners--interested in an all-out war designed to break the union--to prevent a settlement requiring approval of 21 of the 28 clubs.
Reinsdorf, of course, said his reputation as a militant owner powerful enough to control eight or nine votes is a union fantasy.
“I said before the union went out that the White Sox could live with the current system, but if the union did go out, my position would become much harder,” Reinsdorf said. “The White Sox have now lost a lot of money, and I don’t want it to be for naught.
“There’s no question I would vote against any deal that doesn’t work for the industry in general. I’d not only vote against it, I’d lobby against it, but if Bud Selig lobbied for it I’d undoubtedly lose.
“The only person who controls votes is Bud Selig. The only person who can pick up the phone and say ‘I need your vote’ is Bud Selig. The only way I can get someone to vote with me is through persuasive argument. I wish I had the power people say I did, but I don’t.
“I mean, it’s very, very common when you’re trying to rally your troops to have a common enemy,” he said, referring to the union. “Five years ago, they picked me out as the common enemy. I’m flattered. I wish I had the Svengali-like powers they attribute to me.”
Svengali or no, Reinsdorf has the power, according to sources. He has been a persuasive voice in almost every ownership decision in recent years but denies he is out to bust the union or employ permanent replacements. He also denies rumors that he has had a hawk-moderate split with Selig or that he is a close ally of attorney Ballow, though, “I have tremendous respect for him.”
It is uncertain how this seven-month dispute could be any more inflamed or litigious, but Ballow carries an aggressive reputation for holding the line against striking unions in newspaper and media stalemates, in particular, and in confronting the National Labor Relations Board, which is expected to be just around the corner for the owners. Said Chuck O’Connor, the longtime management counsel from their longtime firm of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius: "(Ballow has) had an aggressive practice in the newspaper industry when he’s had to deal with entrenched unions. He’s done an extraordinary job in terms of keeping employers running with replacement workers.”
Management sources say some owners, reviewing the record under Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, would like to replace O’Connor with Ballow, who is counsel for the Chicago Tribune Co., owner of the Chicago Cubs, and has been advising the owners in several areas.
“We have a number of club lawyers that have been involved,” O’Connor said. “Bob’s been involved through Jerry Reinsdorf and the Tribune company. He’s been one of the group of lawyers we’ve talked to about the (NLRB) cases and about where we are in the negotiations. He is by no means the only one.”
He is the only one, however, whom Selig mentioned when he met with about 25 players here on Thursday, told them he was frustrated and withdrawing, and unless they negotiated sincerely with McMorris and O’Connor, he would bring in Reinsdorf and Ballow.
Messages left at Ballow’s office were not returned. O’Connor acknowledged that Reinsdorf and Ballow would be a perfect pairing but added: “I think Jerry Reinsdorf wants an agreement. He gets a bad rap in the sense that he wants an agreement, but perhaps (he wants it) on more aggressive terms.”
McMorris, in the meantime, returned to the bargaining table Saturday with more serious concerns than a settlement in the baseball dispute. His son Mike, 30, is seriously ill in Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla with cystic fibrosis. That undoubtedly was a factor in his father’s frustration on Thursday, as was the fact that McMorris never has experienced a work stoppage in 35 years as owner of the largest privately operated trucking company in the country.
Discussing the possibility that the fragile talks could blow up again, McMorris said: “If that happens, everything changes. If we’re going to go off the cliff, then everything changes. I’m someone who represents peace and truth. I don’t have a history of trouble with my employees. If we’re going to go to war and spend every day in and out of the courtroom, we have to have owners with more confrontational approaches. If that process is about to begin, we need an owner and lawyer who are more skilled than I am.”