- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 18, 2002

Sports Biz

Twelve days before the players' strike date of Aug. 30, Major League Baseball owners seemingly already have won.
That statement seems hard to believe, particularly considering the lack of unity and double-talk that continues to exist among the owners. One need look no further than George Steinbrenner and Nelson Doubleday in New York for evidence of that.
But when the smoke finally clears on the labor talks of 2002, owners will have gained a drug testing platform for the first time ever, more revenue sharing than at any other point in history, a worldwide draft and, depending on how the rest of negotiations go, perhaps a luxury tax far tougher than the 1997-99 version.
None of these elements remotely compares to the substantial revenue sharing or stringent substance abuse policies of the NFL or NBA. But battling against the MLB Players Association, perhaps the toughest union in America, the owners can count themselves very fortunate for gaining as much as they have.
"Most of the key issues have been agreed upon or are certainly within reach, and every issue has involved compromises," said MLB president Bob DuPuy.
So how do you explain such a historic change in outcome? After all, the players had been 8-for-8 in work stoppages dating to 1972.
The answer lies in an unusually moderate negotiating platform among management's labor committee of DuPuy, MLB executive vice president Rob Manfred, Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos and Chicago Cubs president and chief executive Andy MacPhail.
While MLB commissioner Bud Selig and his pack of hawkish, small-market owners have stridently sought sweeping reforms and givebacks from the players, at the bargaining table each day the team has taken a different approach. It has agreed to boost the minimum player salary by 50 percent to $300,000, a huge boon for the large group of young talent in the game, and will elevate benefit packages as well.
The union, meanwhile, has backed off its usual take-it-or-leave-it style and has been more conciliatory. Early in the process, players quickly agreed that this labor deal should have more revenue sharing than ever before. They also acknowledged the need to address drug control in baseball and, in recent days, have even begun to talk about a luxury tax in specific, numerical terms.
"Needless to say, we are prepared to meet and bargain with the owners' representatives until an agreement is reached," said union chief Donald Fehr.
The likely result is a moderate labor deal that provides some important benefits and drawbacks for both sides exactly the sort of thing that ought to happen in tough but fair collective bargaining.
The irony of the situation is difficult for former MLB commissioner Fay Vincent, who 10 years ago was forced out by Selig and his allies for advocating just such an approach. Vincent wanted to forge a productive alliance with the union, much like the NFL has, and lobbied the owners to seek economic reforms progressively over the course of decades and several labor deals. Selig wanted to wage war with the players right away. A decade of fruitless pursuit and the canceled 1994 World Series has led DuPuy, Manfred & Co. back to the Vincent Way.
"I guess they're finally figuring out that you can't roll back 25 years of mistakes in one deal," Vincent said.
The only thing that can derail the owners' wins now is a prolonged strike. Gains in economic policy don't mean a thing if revenues stop rolling in and the bankers floating nearly $4billion in baseball debt start clamoring for their money.
That, of course, mandates a prompt agreement on the final and largest remaining hurdle: a luxury tax. The players already have made a significant step forward by agreeing to talk about the concept, though that concession still seems far less historic when you remember that baseball quietly lived with a luxury tax for three seasons.
Both sides have serious flaws in their luxury tax arguments. The players' proposal a 15 percent tax on payrolls above $130million, with the threshold and tax rate to increase in future years likely will apply only to the New York Yankees in the near future. If the tax has no practical effect of any significance, that's not much of a bargaining proposal.
Angelos, meanwhile, was his usual double-talking self Friday. He attempted to spin the proposed luxury tax as both an important control mechanism for salaries and something that teams could freely and easily handle, with little to no effect on baseball operations, if they so desired.
But thankfully for fans, the dispute now is centered on numbers, not core concepts. Even with the strike date now in place, one should hope that even the barons of baseball, so often morally bankrupt, will not shut down the game over the difference of a few zeroes or the placement of a decimal point.
"I know the word 'strike' sounds serious. [A strike date] has to be laid out there, I think, to get something done," said Baltimore pitcher Jason Johnson, the Orioles' player representative. "We have [12] days to discuss it, and hopefully, something will be done."

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