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BASEBALL / ROSS NEWHAN : Common Sense Dictates a Negotiated Agreement

From the Dept. of No One Has Wanted to Read About It or Hear About It, from what had been the dust bin of Who Cares, comes this semi-promising update on the labor situation.

--Yes, ongoing talks have produced a degree of progress, a better and more respectful understanding of each side’s position and a concerted effort to reach an agreement by next week’s All-Star break, or mid-July.

--No, there is no agreement yet on a payroll tax rate or the threshold at which the tax would kick in or the delicate issue of returning service time to the players for the 75 days they lost during the 1994-95 strike.

--Yes, the perception that talks have reached a sensitive point is enhanced by the fact that the principals have basically gone underground, refusing to comment on issues or the status of negotiations.

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--No, some union leaders have not completely shaken a deep-rooted belief that the owners will not ratify any negotiated agreement because management has always intended to unilaterally implement new work rules.

And, skeptics on the union side contend, that is still management’s intent, even though it would require a federal judge to lift the injunction that ended the strike and brought the players back under terms of the expired bargaining agreement in February of 1994.

“Do I believe there will be a negotiated agreement or another labor battle over implementation? I believe there will be an agreement,” veteran agent Tom Reich, who has a hand on the pulse, said.

By the All-Star break?

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“I wouldn’t forecast it, but I don’t think it’s impossible,” he said. “It remains a daunting challenge to tie down the total package, but for the first time there have been respectful and sincere negotiations.

“I don’t think there’s anyone involved in the process who doesn’t fully understand the need for an agreement reflecting honest compromise and the more compelling necessity after that of working together to grab the brass ring.

“I’m not saying that either side has lost the will to fight, but both recognize that another war would be mutually destructive.”

An attempt by the owners to implement would ignite such a war, although it isn’t clear how much support the union could generate among the players for another walkout.

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Common sense, while not always applied, dictates a negotiated agreement.

The package under discussion would span five or six years.

It would include most or all of the owners’ revenue-sharing agreement, a luxury tax affecting five or six high payroll teams per year in the middle or last three years of the agreement and the union’s proposed 2.5% tax on all salaries in the first year or two, generating a fund that would augment the owners’ revenue-sharing pool and also be used for joint growth and marketing projects.

The players will ultimately get back all or most of their service time, a trade-off, perhaps, for a change in the arbitration process by which a panel of three arbitrators would decide salary disputes, rather than one arbitrator.

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Many on the union side give credit to Randy Levine, the latest management negotiator, for helping advance the process by not allowing it to disintegrate into a clash of egos or personalities.

The last hurdle, some on both sides worry, could be union leader Donald Fehr.

Is he too dogmatically tied to history, to the hard-won rights of the past, and a belief that none of those rights should be compromised or given back?

“Anyone who says that is simply not familiar with what’s happening or is trying to derail negotiations,” Fehr said.

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“All the movement in this process, all the compromise, has come from the players.

“The owners started from a pie-in-the-sky notion of where they wanted to be. We started from where we were [when the last agreement expired].”

History? There is the theory that those who fail to learn from it are condemned to perish from it.

Owners and players finally may be at a critical juncture in the talks. There is the hint of a light at the end of the tunnel.

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If they have not learned from recent history, that theory may become reality.

ROYAL LAMENT

Grim times in Kansas City. George Brett, a franchise icon and vice president of baseball operations, is said to have distanced himself from the organization after being jilted in an attempt to buy the small-market, low-payroll club last winter. And the few veteran players have begun sniping at management after the wild-card contender of last summer has become a virtual no-name cellar contender with the dumping of Wally Joyner, Greg Gagne and Gary Gaetti.

“This is not an atmosphere conducive to winning,” said pitcher Kevin Appier.

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Said Mark Gubicza: “We have some good young players here, but what are they learning? How to lose? How to accept losing? The only way to learn is to win.”

General Manager Herk Robinson acknowledged the complaints but said the Royals remain committed to the low-cost youth movement. He did not supply an advertisement for ticket sales, however.

“How many of our guys would play for Baltimore?” Robinson asked. “The answer is probably zero, excluding pitchers.

“How many of our guys could move somebody out of a job? Not many.”

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CUBBY HOLE

Candid comments from a couple of Chicago Cubs in Los Angeles last week--center fielder Brian McRae, who can leave as a free agent when the season is over, and first baseman Mark Grace, who can leave through a contract option.

“I would like to stay, but I don’t know what [management] wants to do, what direction they want to head in,” McRae said.

“I want to win, and I think we went backwards from last year [when the Cubs were 73-71].

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“I don’t think we’re as good a team as we were last year. We’re lucky this division [the National League Central] is so bad.

“Hopefully, we can continue to stay close and maybe [the front office] will make a move that will prove they’re really serious about winning.”

Said Grace: “We’re good enough to win 85 games. Whether that’s good enough to win the division, I don’t know. You can only play at the level of your talent. If you look at our team, you have to say it’s competitive, but it’s nothing to write home about.”

Neither is the league in general.

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Only five NL teams were above .500 before the weekend, and three of those--the Dodgers, San Diego Padres and Houston Astros--were three or fewer games above. Is it parity or parody?

SETTING HIS LINE

No regrets from Felipe Alou that he won’t be managing the NL All-Star team again next week.

Bobby Cox can have it, the Montreal manager said. Alou will be on a fishing trip, a long way from the inevitable controversies.

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“I loved the atmosphere surrounding the game, but it wasn’t fun,” he said, of the hits he took for including Dodger shortstop Jose Offerman on his roster but leaving Larry Walker and Derek Bell off.

Would he be in favor of expanding rosters? Alou said that would be a joke because “you’d spend the whole time saying, ‘OK, you play one inning, then you play the next inning.’ That’s not an All-Star game. The big problem is you have a guy with 70 RBIs sitting at home and a guy hitting .235 starting the game because the fans vote him in.

“It’s strictly popularity. Now it’s Mr. Cox’s turn.”

NAMES AND NUMBERS

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--Attention Angels: Cincinnati Red closer Jeff Brantley and Manager Ray Knight engaged in a shouting match Wednesday after Knight gave ex-Angel Lee Smith the chance to record his first save in Tuesday night’s second game of a doubleheader sweep over the Philadelphia Phillies. Said Knight:

“That was the one time I could show Lee Smith some respect and reward him for what he has done for us. I’ve used him in all types of situations without giving him a save opportunity and he had not said a word to me in complaint.”

Knight rewarded Smith again by using him in the ninth inning Friday night, and Smith responded with his second save.

--Released by the Philadelphia Phillies and signed by the Atlanta Braves, Mark Whiten became Atlanta’s sixth right fielder since David Justice went down for the season because of a dislocated shoulder. Whiten has been with eight teams since 1990. Great tools. Great body. But perceived to be uninterested, detached.

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“I’m not an emotional guy,” Whiten said. “I could win the lottery and you wouldn’t know it.”

--The Seattle Mariners, who had interest last winter, have renewed interest in Darryl Strawberry to play left field. Strawberry had 12 homers, 27 RBIs and a .400 average through 22 games with the St. Paul Saints.

--The Rangers open a three-game series in Anaheim on Monday night having used only six starting pitchers, tied with Milwaukee for the lowest total in the American League, but there is some concern about ace Ken Hill, who has a 1-2 record and 9.00 ERA and has given up more hits than innings pitched (41-30) in his last five starts after going 7-3 with a 2.66 ERA in his previous 12.

“I’m trying to be too perfect and fighting myself,” said Hill, who has a 36-14 career record for April and May, 13-13 for June and 33-39 after June.

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--Former Dodger Orel Hershiser, who faces the Chicago White Sox today, went 4-4 with a 6.64 ERA in his first 12 starts but is 4-0 with an 0.66 ERA and 13 consecutive scoreless innings in his last four. The Cleveland right-hander said he discovered what his problem is but won’t elaborate. He is also growing a beard because his kids are at summer camp and not pestering him to shave.

“I can have an early midlife crisis. But I haven’t bought any gold chains or sports cars yet.”

--The delay in finalizing financing for a new Milwaukee stadium has cost the Brewers the 1999 All-Star game, but a $20-million offer at low interest rates from the Bradley Foundation of Milwaukee is expected to help close the complex deal.

Michael Joyce, president of the foundation, said he decided to make the offer after talking to his 11-year-old son, who plays on a Little League team named the Brewers. “He said, ‘Dad, if the Brewers leave, what will I do with my cap?’ ” Joyce said. “It kind of got to me.”

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Kleenex, anyone?

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Power Co.

A look at how Mark McGwire ranks in homers per 100 at-bats among players with at least 3,500 at-bats:

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*--*

Player HR Ratio Babe Ruth 714 8.50 Mark McGwire 302 7.82 Ralph Kiner 369 7.09 H. Killebrew 573 7.03 Ted Williams 521 6.76

*--*


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