- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 17, 2002

PHOENIX Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig said yesterday the team owners will not lock out the players this entire year, a salvo that could thaw years of bitter distrust between the two sides.
For two months, Selig had said the owners had no immediate plans for a lockout, despite the lack of a labor agreement since the previous accord expired in early November. Now the commissioner has extended his pledge for all of 2002.
"I've made my position very clear. [A lockout] is simply not on my radar screen at all," Selig said. "We absolutely need to proceed forward toward a new labor deal."
Baseball has suffered through eight work stoppages since 1972.
The no-lockout promise highlighted a busy first day in the two-day owners' meetings here. The owners also approved the first part of a complex ownership shuffle that resulted in a group led by Florida Marlins owner John Henry acquiring the Boston Red Sox from the Jean R. Yawkey Trust for $700 million.
The Red Sox purchase, which also includes Fenway Park and the New England Sports Network, more than doubles the previous record franchise sale price for baseball.
In the next few weeks, Henry will sell the Marlins to Montreal Expos owner Jeffrey Loria for $158 million, and Loria will sell the Expos back to MLB for $120 million.
The owners originally intended to approve all three transactions yesterday. But the thousands of details involved in the interconnected and unprecedented three-team ownership swap, particularly the Boston end of it, proved too great to plow through in one day. Spring training now is just a month away, and Selig said the fates of all three franchises will be settled by the final closing of the Red Sox sale, expected in mid- to late February.
"Time is unquestionably of the essence," said David Samson, Expos executive vice president.
Selig refused to confirm that MLB definitely will assume the Expos operations. The commissioner in fact softened a bit on a his stance against team relocations before a new labor deal is cut, saying a move was still not anticipated but was "an option on the table."
The Washington area in particular has sought the Expos for nearly five years. League sources, however, affirmed an MLB takeover of Montreal will occur within that Red Sox time frame.
Meanwhile, baseball's effort to eliminate the Minnesota and Montreal franchises this season remains alive, Selig said, despite a union grievance and Minnesota stadium lawsuit holding up the plan.
"It has not at all been postponed," he said. "We got the Red Sox done today. Now we have to move on to all these other issues as rapidly as we can."
Selig said he hopes the owners' approval of the Red Sox sale will end a month of fiery discord in Boston that has seen several losing bidders and Massachusetts attorney general Tom Reilly all accuse Selig of wrongly engineering the Red Sox sale to Henry, a longtime friend.
In a deal cut yesterday afternoon with Reilly, Henry's group will start a new Boston Red Sox charitable foundation, and the outgoing Red Sox limited partners agreed to commit an extra $30 million to the Yawkey charitable trust. Just an hour before that deal, Reilly had asked Selig to postpone the approval vote for Henry.
"This is a great step forward for one of the great franchises in all of sport," Selig said.
Union officials declined to comment immediately on the no-lockout pledge or the impending league assumption of Montreal's operations. Union chief Donald Fehr will make a first-ever appearance before the owners this morning .
Baseball insiders said there may be a deeper motive to the no-lockout pledge because the move puts more pressure on the union to respond in kind. Selig last week told the union the owners want significantly more revenue sharing and payroll luxury taxes in the next labor deal two things the union has opposed in any significant quantity. If talks on those points stall, the owners could declare a legal impasse.
That, in turn, could force the players to accept unfavorable terms or go on strike and deal with the resulting public scorn.
In other news, MLB also mollified Rep. John Conyers, Michigan Democrat and perhaps the game's biggest critic on Capitol Hill, by allowing the union to analyze and publicly comment on the game's financial data. Before this agreement, MLB had barred the union from speaking out on baseball's numbers, which in turn had slowed Congress' consideration of a bill to roll back the game's antitrust exemption.


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