- The Washington Times - Friday, December 14, 2001

A proposed deal between baseball owners and players to table the elimination of two teams until at least 2003 fell apart yesterday after more than three days of intense negotiations. The collapse of talks immediately led to a resumption of the players' formal grievance against the owners' contraction plans and further divided the oft-battling sides.

The owners again intend to wipe out two teams, likely the Minnesota Twins and Montreal Expos, before next season, although the union grievance, a stadium lawsuit in Minnesota and an action on Capitol Hill to strip the game's antitrust exemption have made the move all but impossible.

The talks to delay contraction started early this week on the heels of commissioner Bud Selig's difficult outing before a House Judiciary Committee on the game's antitrust exemption. The union, baseball sources said last night, realized the owners' fervent push to contract has all but frozen the budgets of most teams beside the New York clubs and slowed offseason spending. Only two prominent free agents have signed large deals this offseason, Jason Giambi with the Yankees and John Smoltz with the Atlanta Braves, and both deals appeared preordained since summer.

That lack of signing activity moved the players near the point of admitting contraction was within the owners' rights to do and firmly on the table for 2003, subject to an agreed-upon timetable a view entirely opposite the basis of their grievance. In return for that admission, the players were to receive a pledge of no contraction for next season, time the union could use for lobbying the owners on its preferred alternative of relocation for struggling clubs. The union also wanted to retain certain legal avenues to derail contraction for 2003 if needed.

The deal also would have opened up an avenue for the parties to pursue a new collective bargaining agreement. The previous accord expired last month, and any talks toward a new deal have been shelved until the contraction issue is resolved.

But once the concept moved to legal language, talks quickly broke down. Donald Fehr, players union chief, said the owners introduced two new and unacceptable requirements for a deal: a covenant to keep certain parts of the grievance settlement secret and a demand that if contraction were delayed until 2004, the owners retained the right to switch the teams to be eliminated without union approval. A switch of contracted teams could result in significant alterations to revenue sharing.

"All of this is regrettable," Fehr said.

Predictably, the owners offered an opposing view.

"The negotiations for a settlement of the contraction grievance have broken down over the Players Association's refusal to acknowledge Major League Baseball's basic right to contract," said Paul Beeston, chief operating officer for MLB. "Throughout these negotiations, the Players Association tried to limit our basic right by imposing limitations that we felt were not within their purview."

Rep. John Conyers, Michigan Democrat and one of the lead sponsors of legislation to roll back baseball's antitrust exemption, vowed to continue his push in light of the news.

"This is a real strikeout for the fans, players and cities involved," Conyers said. "This indicates to me that the owners' principal interest is in being able to enter into backroom deals outside of public and congressional scrutiny. This is all the more reason to repeal baseball's antitrust exemption and the sooner the better."

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