BASEBALL / ROSS NEWHAN : Money Talks, So Why Can’t These Guys?


Baseball’s owners and players turned in another shameful performance during last week’s labor negotiations in Arizona, where those “core economic issues” they love to talk about seemed less imperative as management paid $350 a day for hotel rooms at the Gainey Ranch Hyatt Regency and the union sheltered staff and players in the luxury of the Scottsdale Princess.

This dog-and-pony show has now played at seven negotiating locales across the country, running up an expense tab--besides the $60,000 a month each side is paying special mediator William J. Usery--that would ease the alleged financial concerns of any small-market team.

This week, the owners are meeting at one of America’s oldest and most famous resort hotels, the Breakers in Palm Beach, Fla., where an ocean-view room goes for $400-plus. Acting Commissioner Bud Selig likes to say that the “short-term pain” of this dispute is worth “the long-term gain.” A room with a view, of course, does wonders for pain.


So does the $280-million or so entry fee that the owners will divide up after awarding Phoenix and Tampa-St. Petersburg expansion franchises for 1998 on Thursday. That’s up $45 million a club in the three years since Denver and Miami were awarded franchises, but neither that cover charge, those “core economic problems,” nor the long-running labor dispute has dimmed the ardor of the two new locations--nor that of Orlando and Northern Virginia, areas knocking on the door for the anticipated expansion in 2000.

In the meantime, the negotiations are back in limbo.

Although it has been seven months since the strike began and 27 months since the owners voted to reopen negotiations a year early, neither seems to have the will, as management lawyer Chuck O’Connor put it, to negotiate a compromise agreement.

It took four days of semi-conviviality, exasperated threats by the owners and no progress in Arizona before the union announced it could be flexible on a payroll tax threshold and would accept the owners’ revenue-sharing plan it had resisted for months, contending it was a salary drag in itself.

But with the clock continuing to tick on the last chance to reach a settlement that would enable the season to open with regular players instead of replacements, the sides quickly returned to what union leader Donald Fehr called parlor games.

The union waited until mid-afternoon of the next day before delivering a threshold proposal.

The owners responded with a proposal so regressive on issues the players had already rejected that the owners couldn’t have conceived it would spark continued negotiations. It didn’t.


Fehr immediately called a news conference--his second of the day--to lambaste the proposal, saying it left the players with a profound sadness.

Could Fehr have reacted otherwise? Of course, but one member of the owners’ negotiating committee complained later that the union leader, blessed in previous work stoppages by the owners’ divisiveness and eventual capitulation, seems more at home now in court or Congress rather than a negotiating room. The owner added that Fehr actually interrupted one promising session to conduct a news briefing because he said he had a commitment to an Eastern writer on deadline.

So, instead of taking the proposal back to the owners, telling them what he thought of it, and suggesting that, despite the insult, he was prepared to make a counterproposal to keep the talks alive, Fehr held an abrasive news conference that naturally sparked a rebuttal from the owners, and both sides left Sunday without negotiating.

“As the union moved in baby steps on the (issue of a payroll tax) threshold, we attempted to respond (in kind),” said O’Connor, acknowledging that it takes two to play those parlor games.

What’s next? Well, the revenue-sharing impediment has been removed, both sides have threshold offers on the table for the first time and talks will probably resume next week.

But what about the will that O’Connor said has been missing?

And who can predict, considering that a World Series has been canceled, a President snubbed and a plea-bargain agreement with the National Labor Relations Board violated by the owners? The union is now putting much of its faith in the NLRB, which is soon expected to cite the owners for unfair labor practice and pursue an injunction forcing reinstatement of the rules and conditions that governed employment through 1994.


The union has said it will end the strike if that happens, but it’s not that simple. Management may reject the legal and financial risks and implement a lockout. The ramifications, on any basis, might not play out until June, at which point the season will have become an aberration, the players will still be without a bargaining agreement, no matter what kind of fine the owners are forced to pay, and animosity will be deeper than ever.

On the other hand, if their last proposal is an indication, the owners seem just as determined to carry the strike into the season, figuring that striking players will eventually cross the line, busting the union in the process.

The Palm Beach owners’ meeting may develop into a Machiavellian battleground between the hawks, led by Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf and attorney Robert Ballow--he is destined to surface once the NLRB decision is announced--and the moderates, which is what Jerry McMorris, the Colorado Rockies’ owner and chief negotiator, calls himself. McMorris wants to remain as lead negotiator, but thinks that when the labor issue is revisited during this week’s meetings it might be difficult for the moderates to maintain control.

The union believes Selig wants a deal, but it also believes Reinsdorf is already pulling the strings, and it has developed a distrust of McMorris because of the inconsistency in the owners’ bargaining positions.

Those positions do not seem the work of a moderate, but it is difficult to believe McMorris would be a front man for Reinsdorf, because McMorris has no admiration for the White Sox owner. In Arizona the other night, McMorris refused to accompany the management team to dinner until Stan Kasten, the Atlanta Braves’ president, called to tell him that Reinsdorf, who has a home in Paradise Valley, wasn’t going.

All of this started with the union exercising its only economic leverage against the possible implementation of a salary cap and a potential attempt by the owners to break a union that has enjoyed 25 years of negotiating gains and doesn’t believe there is a need to give 50% of it back all at once.


It has turned into the longest and costliest strike in professional sports history. The pressure mounts for both sides. Can the owners sell a regular season of replacement players? Can the union hold the line?

According to agents, first- and second-year players are already besieging the union for financial help from the $175-million-plus strike fund, and the union is still fielding complaints from minor leaguers angry that they have been asked not to play in exhibition games by a union that does not represent them. They also are infuriated over the veiled threats by major leaguers allowed to rant and rave during the recent series of union meetings with the minor leaguers.

The union also continues to cast aspersions at Usery, implying that, at times, he has miscommunicated information and doesn’t grasp the complexities, but as Selig said before withdrawing from the latest round of talks, it is time to reach a settlement and stop placing blame.

“Usery isn’t to blame and neither is the weather in Montana,” he said.

Montana? Has anyone checked the hotel rates in Bozeman?