- The Washington Times - Friday, August 2, 2002

Major League Baseball owners will continue to wait to learn if they can wipe out teams without union permission.

Arbitrator Shyam Das yesterday asked for and received more time in rendering a decision on the union's 9-month-old challenge to the owners' contraction plans. The delay is Das' second the decision originally was expected July15 and this time Das has offered no new expected date for his binding ruling.

Owners in November announced their intent to eliminate at least two teams to improve the game's economic and competitive balance. Players contend contraction violates their collective bargaining agreement. If the owners win, they will be able to cut teams unilaterally but still would be required to negotiate the aftereffects, such as dispersing players from eliminated clubs.

If the players win, both contraction itself and its aftereffects must be collectively bargained. And given the players' strong opposition to the very concept of contraction, the notion would be effectively killed.

Das' delay also keeps at bay Washington area hopes for a relocated team. If Das rules against the owners, local baseball boosters think that could help pave the way for a struggling team, perhaps the MLB-owned and operated Montreal Expos, to move here rather than face elimination.

"There's no doubt a ruling from the arbitrator could speed up things, but we have to be ready no matter when," William Collins, chairman of the Northern Virginia-based effort to land a franchise, said earlier this week.

Baseball industry sources said the basis for Das' continued reluctance to submit his decision is an unwillingness to enter the ongoing labor talks between owners and players at a potentially critical stage. In recent days, both sides have made what could be significant progress toward a deal. The game's ninth work stoppage since 1972 certainly remains possible, but a growing movement toward agreement on several economic issues could ultimately render moot the need for Das' ruling. As a result, Das is keeping his timetable open-ended.

Owners are seeking a significant increase in sharing of clubs' local revenue among teams the current level stands at 20 percent as well as a reintroduction of a luxury tax on the payrolls of high-spending clubs. The union remains opposed to both minimum and maximum payrolls of any kind but has grown more amenable to heightened revenue sharing.

Talks in recent days have centered on other issues such as minimum salaries for individual players, so as to keep talks proceeding. The ongoing string of productive negotiating sessions stands in stark contrast to 1994, when the players last struck, and substantive talks did not begin until well after the players walked off the job.

The two sides are tentatively scheduled to meet again today, the fourth such session this week.

Meanwhile, union chief Donald Fehr is close to wrapping up his visits with players on every MLB team, with the Boston Red Sox the last remaining club.

This article was based in part on wire-service reports.

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