- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 17, 2002

Major League Baseball players yesterday set a strike date of Aug. 30, marking by far the largest and boldest step yet toward the game's ninth work stoppage since 1972.
The move the result of months of fruitless, on-and-off negotiations between owners and players on a broad new economic platform represents the union's strongest statement yet of its firm displeasure with owners' demands. By announcing the strike date, the players hope to prod the owners to modify their bargaining stance and reach a deal before Aug. 30. But if the strategy backfires, the rest of the season and World Series could be canceled, as they were in 1994.
The union made its unanimous decision yesterday morning during a conference call of its executive board. Its leaders had met Monday in Chicago, and a decision whether to set a strike date was delayed in hopes that an agreement could be reached this week. But those hopes were quickly dashed as the two sides moved further apart.
"The players are committed to reaching a fair and equitable agreement, one which takes into account their views, and not just those of the owners," said Donald Fehr, executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association.
Management negotiators were quick to criticize the union's decision.
"We are disappointed the Players Association decided to set a strike date," said Bob DuPuy, MLB president. "We did not believe it was necessary, particularly given the progress we've made during the negotiations the last several weeks. Most of the key issues have been agreed upon or are certainly within reach, and every issue has involved compromises."
The two sides are trying to agree on a series of substantive changes to the game's economics and administration, including a vast increase in revenue sharing among clubs, a worldwide player draft and, for the first time, drug and steroid testing for players.
By far the largest hurdle in the current negotiations, and the primary basis for the strike date, is the owners' firm desire for a payroll tax to control still-soaring salaries. Owners have proposed a 37.5 percent tax on team payrolls above $102 million. The funds would go to economically struggling teams, and under the owners' proposal, the tax rate ultimately would rise to 50 percent.
A somewhat similar luxury tax, with a 35 percent threshold on the game's five highest team payrolls, was in place from 1997 to 1999 but did little to improve baseball's marked competitive and fiscal imbalance.
The National Basketball Association and National Football League have extensive and fairly restrictive salary caps and have thrived under them. But the MLBPA has been successful for three decades fighting just such measures and remains strongly opposed to any broad tax.
The players' current luxury tax proposal a 15 percent tax on payrolls above $130 million with both the tax rate and threshold to increase marginally in the future currently would apply only to the New York Yankees.
"Our proposal on [a $45 million] minimum salary has been widely criticized by the union because it only applies to [two teams, Montreal and Tampa Bay]," said Rob Manfred, MLB executive vice president. "One could say the same about their tax proposal."
Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos, a member of MLB's negotiating committee, said it's possible a deal could be struck before the strike deadline.
"We've had a lot of give and take. There just seems to be a real difference on the [luxury] tax," Mr. Angelos said. "We are trying to get the spiraling [salaries] under control, but nobody is going to be obliged to stay under the threshold level of the tax."
Talks are scheduled to resume today.
Players, meanwhile, remain fearful that without a new labor contract in place by season's end or a pre-emptive strike, the owners will lock them out and unilaterally seek to change the game's work rules. By striking so close to the playoffs, players already would be paid for much of the season but have the owners at risk of losing lucrative postseason revenues.
If a strike does occur, it promises to set off a massive economic fallout, just as in 1994. Fox and ESPN, baseball's two national broadcast partners, stand to lose hundreds of millions each, though their contracts call for baseball to recoup their losses at the back end of their contracts. However, stadiums would be empty, forcing thousands of rank-and-file employees out of work.
If the rest of the season is wiped out, each player would lose 17 percent of his base salary. Texas Rangers shortstop Alex Rodriguez would take the biggest hit, forfeiting nearly $3.6 million.
Several cash-strapped and debt-laden owners also will face serious pressure from their lenders to settle the matter quickly.
Worst yet, baseball again would be the subject of national scorn, ridicule and perhaps even renewed congressional scrutiny. Despite baseball's considerable popularity, attendance has yet to recover fully from the 232-day strike of 1994-95.
During that stoppage and several more times since, legislators on Capitol Hill have attempted to repeal baseball's cherished antitrust exemption.
"The baseball owners and baseball players must understand if there is a work stoppage, a lot of fans are going to be furious, and I'm one of them," said President Bush, a former owner of the Texas Rangers, at his ranch in Crawford, Texas.
However, the president has no plans to intervene in the dispute because "it is very important for those people to get together."
"They can make every excuse in the book not to reach an accord. It is bad for them not to reach an accord. They need to keep working," he said.

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