- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 7, 2001

Nothing breeds optimism like spring training. Even regular cellar-dwellers like the Minnesota Twins believe for a moment they have a chance to escape their sorry situations.
Commissioner Bud Selig and players union chief Donald Fehr, at times mortal enemies, are similarly working to put a happy face on arguably the most important set of labor negotiations in the game's history. How their optimism of spring holds up this summer and fall will be the key to whether baseball is played in 2002 and beyond.
The current collective bargaining agreement expires Oct. 31, and with Fehr, Selig and their two camps philosophically miles apart, another lengthy strike or lockout remains possible. The core debate is the same as it has been for decades the owners' desire for cost control against the players' quest for protected free-market economics. That debate has produced eight work stoppages since 1972, including the 1994 strike that caused the cancellation of the World Series.
But this year's labor talks will take on far greater importance. The stakes are higher because baseball's annual revenues have more than doubled since 1995 to nearly $3 billion. The fiscal gap between large-market and small-market teams has never been greater, and most baseball leaders agree another work stoppage could kill the game.
As the two leaders have toured spring camps, however, their comments to players, team executives and media have steered clear of that daunting backdrop. Rather, both Selig and Fehr are touting their increased cooperation and the demise of an ugliness that colored union-management relations even in non-contract years.
"There is no question that the atmosphere, the mood is better than it's ever been," Selig said. "We've done a lot of things together in the last three, four years, have spent a lot of time together. I can't predict what's going to happen, but I can say we are in a totally different atmosphere."
Fehr echoed those comments after a stop last week at the Chicago White Sox's camp in Tucson, Ariz.
"The rhetoric is not as loud, not as insistent and not as confrontational as it was then," Fehr said. "I think if you'll notice, there is no open hostility between the parties. Nobody is making any threats."
While both men profess a desire to not stop the game's recent rise in attendance, merchandising and new stadium development, both are privately circling the wagons. At an owners' meeting in January, Selig implemented a gag order on all owners from speaking publicly about the labor situation, backed by a $1 million fine. Selig denied after the meeting he made such an order, but conceded its existence several weeks later.
"Every time before with labor talks, it's been a circus-like atmosphere. It can't go on, and it won't go on," Selig said.
The commissioner also said this week he is open to eliminating some franchises, a move baseball insiders see as a veiled threat to the union. Removing two teams would put more than 50 players out of work.
The idea of contraction to reverse overexpansion is not new. Most recently, it formed part of the Commissioner's Blue Ribbon Report on Baseball Economics last summer. That report, written by a group led by former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, suggested several measures that are now working their way into the owners' negotiating platform.
Among those measures are a competitive balance draft in which the eight worst teams would select non-protected players from the rosters of the eight best teams; increased revenue sharing among all teams; minimum payrolls; and greater luxury taxes for high-dollar payrolls. All are subject to union approval.
"We need to make substantive changes here," Selig said. "We are going to push ahead."
Fehr since last summer has been tacitly dismissive of the Blue Ribbon Report, particularly its contention that small-market teams are permanently consigned to also-ran status. Since the early 1990s, Houston, Seattle and Cleveland have risen from division cellars, built new stadiums, made the playoffs repeatedly and joined the ranks of the game's high-revenue clubs.
The one thing that would almost certainly improve competitive and fiscal balance an NFL-style hard salary cap likely will not enter any labor discussions. The union has never backed down on its resistance to a cap, and its resolve against it remains ironclad.
Predictably, the union's position will far more resemble the game's status quo in which player salaries have doubled since 1992. While hoping to avoid a work stoppage, Fehr is advising players not to spend lavishly.
"If you get into a crisis, players will do what they have to do," he said.
No talks are currently scheduled, and none are expected until at least late spring. In the interim, Fehr and Selig will be quietly forming their positions and working overtime to maintain public enthusiasm in the game.
"The only thing that can impede our renaissance is ourselves," Selig said.

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