- The Washington Times - Monday, April 1, 2002

Hope and faith are the two favorite words of Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig. Everything he does, Selig says, is guided by those oft-repeated words and the desire to instill those qualities in baseball fans everywhere.
But as the 2002 season approaches, the game's fractious labor situation has rendered hope and faith rare commodities and replaced them with distrust and disharmony.
The owners and players are operating without a basic labor agreement the previous one expired in November after the World Series. Negotiations toward a new deal remain stuck at the starting line. The players are proceeding with a grievance against the owners' plan to eliminate at least two franchises. The two sides' views on baseball economics are nearly as divergent as black and white.
Selig vowed in January not to lock out the players this year, and union chief Donald Fehr backed away from talk of a strike. But faith in those promises is weakening within baseball circles, and the hope of getting through the 2002 season without a work stoppage is similarly flagging. Eight such stoppages have occurred since 1972.
"The gulf between us is big," said Rob Manfred, MLB's executive vice president for labor. "There are key differences right now on structural issues."
The owners want a system in which 50 percent of local team revenues are shared among all the clubs, up dramatically from the current 20 percent. Management's latest proposal also called for a 50 percent luxury tax on team payrolls above $98 million and a competitive-balance draft in which the eight worst teams over a three-year period could select unprotected players from the eight best.
The proposals have three primary aims: propping up the game's fiscal laggards, stemming the game's current competitive imbalance and stopping the run of red ink MLB says reached $519 million in 2001.
The players, conversely, want to maintain the status quo, and they reject the luxury tax proposal. Long heated opponents of a salary cap or any cap-like mechanism, the players offered a counterproposal that would transfer 22.5 percent in local team revenues between clubs. The union's revenue sharing plan additionally called for significant accounting differences in distributing the pot of aid money and would place far less control of the funds in Selig's hands.
Buttressing the players' push for free-market economics is a doubling in industry revenues since 1996 and a meteoric rise in franchise values.
"If nothing else, Mr. Selig's assertion that Major League Baseball cannot realize a profit, despite an annual revenue estimated at over $3.5 billion, a fixed number of teams, and a static percentage of revenue going to salaries, is convincing proof that monopolies never work," Fehr said.
While negotiations continue, the rules of the now-expired labor pact remain in force. The key question is what happens now. Rumors have circulated for months that the owners this summer will declare an impasse in negotiations and unilaterally impose their own economic system, complete with heavy payroll controls and significant revenue sharing. Such a move would certainly lead to lawsuits and could lead to a players strike.
Selig has attempted to downplay the talk. But the players have enjoyed a long run of success at the bargaining table, and plenty of owners, particularly those of small-market clubs, are eager to break the streak.
"Major League Baseball is 0-for-5 in trying to beat the union and Don Fehr," said Ed Goren, president of Fox Sports. Baseball's broadcast TV partner admits to uneasiness among advertisers because of the game's labor climate.
"They haven't done it to this point, and short of getting [NFL Players Association chief] Gene Upshaw to represent the [union], MLB will lose again with the current lineup," Goren said.
That lineup was altered last month when MLB president and chief operating officer Paul Beeston resigned. Beeston and Fehr made significant progress last summer toward a new agreement before talks abruptly stopped. Industry sources say that halt order came from Selig, who was upset that Beeston's proposals would not do enough to control costs.
Fronting the owners' negotiating team now will be Selig, new MLB president Bob DuPuy, Manfred and Chicago Cubs president Andy MacPhail.
Meanwhile, Fehr has been making his annual rounds to spring training camps, telling players to curb their spending and save money in case of a work stoppage. And the union acknowledges it will continue to make life difficult for management, further eroding hope and faith.
"Labor relations are essentially a search for authenticity," said Gene Orza, the union's associate general counsel. "Sometimes that search for authenticity and what people will really accept requires you subject the other party to some pain. As long as it doesn't turn violent, that's OK."


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