- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 25, 2001

For nearly a year, baseball commissioner Bud Selig has said there is plenty of time to reach a new labor agreement with the players association. Let's just enjoy Barry Bonds, Cal Ripken, Tony Gwynn and the pennant races and worry about labor later, Selig said. And most of the country did just that.
But with less than two weeks remaining on the current accord expiration is set for a day after the World Series ends neither Major League Baseball nor the players association reports any significant progress in striking a deal, or even a formal timetable to conduct meaningful talks. And given the game's sorry labor history, which includes eight work stoppages since 1972, another now appears likely.
On its face, that adds up to the same, protracted millionaires vs. billionaires fight baseball fans know all too well. The stakes, however, are greater this time than at any point in the game's history. Baseball's annual revenues, now soaring toward $4billion annually, have never been higher. And since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, the nation's tolerance for infighting within sports is virtually nonexistent.
"This is all very troubling," said Andrew Zimbalist, a Smith College economics professor who has written frequently on sports economics and consulted for the players association. "I started getting concerned [about the lack of progress] back in the spring. Now the deadline is right on top of us, and, sadly, it's predictable that we're here."
So what is the problem? If everyone knew the deadline was fast approaching, why wasn't either side doing anything about it? The league and union did conduct some largely informal discussions over the summer, and neither Selig nor Donald Fehr, the players union chief, is saying much about them. But several baseball insiders say talks have not moved into a formal, organized stage primarily because there is a vast lack of cohesion between owners.
Some owners of baseball's have-nots, such as Kansas City's David Glass, San Diego's John Moores and Pittsburgh's Kevin McClatchy, are having significant difficulty keeping up with the sport's economic titans, and want some type of salary control a cap, enhanced luxury tax or some similar mechanism.
The haves, which include the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers, are clearly comfortable paying their bills under the current structure. And most of the high-earning teams have little regard for the luxury tax used from 1997 to '99. The tax shifted some money from the top salary teams to those at the bottom. But in actuality, the tax did little to lessen the payroll differences when some of the receiving owners did not put the money back into their teams.
And even the haves are not believed to be fully unified because of differing levels of tolerance for rancorous labor fights. In the interim, Selig has imposed a $1-million penalty for any team owner or executive speaking publicly on the issue.
"The owners haven't agreed amongst themselves. It's pretty much that simple," said one high-ranking industry source. "We've seen a lot of posturing from Selig, but they don't have a unified plan yet of what they want from the players."
Complicating the issue further is that Selig and the owners are considering moving or folding some weaker franchises, such as Montreal, Florida and Tampa Bay.
A new labor deal, franchise management and a new economic system are thus tied together in one large, complex morass, and a specific road map or sequence to deal with the issues is not yet clear.
"No decisions have been made on anything," Selig said.
Last year's Blue Ribbon Report on Baseball Economics, which lists meaningful revenue sharing, minimum payrolls and franchise relocation among its suggestions for repair, does provide some ideas. But the owners have not universally embraced the plan, and Fehr has called it too simplistic to be useful.
The owners will meet in Chicago starting Nov. 6 to begin making decisions. From there, the timing could be very compressed. Free agents can begin signing with new teams 16 days after the World Series ends. If the owners want to keep that from happening, they'll need to impose a lockout. Otherwise, their choices are to extend the current deal by at least a year or reconstruct baseball economics into a new deal inside of two weeks.
The players, for their part, have enjoyed the runup in average salaries from $1.2million in 1994 to more than $2.1million this year. But Fehr and the union believe that on an aggregate basis, players are not receiving enough of the game revenues and as a result, are not preparing to yield ground. Individual players have begun stashing away personal funds in preparation for a long layoff.
"Unfortunately, I do think it's very possible we'll have a work stoppage, based on what seems to be happening," said Joe Geier, an Ellicott City, Md., financial planner who works with numerous major-league players. "There are a lot of scenarios floating out there, and we're in a position where guys are needing to make preparations."
Back in the spring, both Fehr and Selig said the mood between the league and union was perhaps at its best level ever. Whether that cheeriness ever turns to real action and progress will go a long way in determining the game's future.
"We still need to make substantial changes," Selig said. "We are going to push ahead."

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