- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 20, 2002

Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig says a lockout this season by the owners is off the table. Union chief Donald Fehr says the possibility of going on strike has not crossed his mind. Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Curt Schilling responded angrily last week when a reporter asked if the players might walk off the job this summer.
In short, nobody within baseball wants to stop playing, despite years of distrust and a decidedly weird offseason that has seen the game adding far more problems to its to-do list rather than checking them off.
The good vibes already have generated some action as well. Selig recently met with union brass, outlining his desire for broad economic change in the next labor deal with players and, more specifically, the desire for far more revenue sharing and an increased payroll luxury tax. Fehr similarly spoke before the owners Thursday during their two-day meeting in Phoenix, an invitation never before granted.
"This is a radical departure from the past," Fehr said.
So everything's great, right, particularly considering whispers within the game of a new basic agreement possibly being in place by late summer if all continues to go well?
Not so fast. Both sides are doing everything possible to avoid the rancor of years past and the resulting economic damage. That in and of itself represents a quantum leap of progress from years before, when baseball labor rhetoric and pot-shotting became nearly an art form. And it's to be rightly celebrated.
It's still important to remember, however, that sleeves have yet to be rolled up on fostering long-term labor harmony within baseball. MLB and the union alike have been greatly distracted by the contraction fiasco and the union's resulting and still-pending grievance. Similar side talks continue to flare up over the mess of who will and should be running the Florida Marlins, Boston Red Sox and Montreal Expos before the ownership changes with each club are settled late next month.
More fundamentally, events of the last two weeks continue to show how differently the owners and union view baseball's landscape and how best to fix it. Consider the following:
cSelig's aim for a 50 percent luxury tax on team payrolls above $98 million is already falling on deaf ears within union ranks. Luxury taxes were tried from 1996 to 1999, with little success in either slowing down spending by wealthier teams or improving the fortunes of the cash-strapped clubs. The new tax percentage is greatly expanded from before, but skepticism remains high.
"Our simple view is that players are not luxury items," Fehr said. "That is a difficult issue for us."
cThe union to this day has never fully bought into the league's notion of small-market and large-market disparities. No one within Fehr's office ever will deny the current revenue differences between the New York Yankees and Montreal and how they can translate to on-field play.
But no union official ever has conceded publicly that any team's small-market status is a life sentence. Rather, they are quick to point out that 15 years ago Atlanta, Cleveland, Seattle and San Francisco were on the game's endangered list. Today they're perennial playoff contenders and some of the sport's economic pillars.
Even a spot at the top of the revenue list is not secure. Four years ago, the Baltimore Orioles were coming off two straight playoff appearances, had the highest payroll in baseball and trailed only the Yankees and Cleveland in the ability to generate local revenue. Four losing seasons later, Baltimore has fallen to 14th in local revenue and 11th in payroll.
"Philadelphia's a small market? Anaheim? Since when? These are huge markets," a union source wondered aloud recently.
Selig has not formally put minimum team payrolls on the negotiating table but is expected to do so soon. A popular and easy-to-understand notion, minimum payrolls of $40million were prescribed 18 months ago in the Commissioner's Blue Ribbon Report on Baseball Economics. If enacted, the low-end requirement would prevent the fan-support-killing salary purges seen in recent years in Montreal, San Diego, Florida and other cities.
But the union, steadfast in its commitment to free-market economics, actually does not endorse minimum payrolls and sees them as a potential slippery slope to further shackling at the top end.
Two sides and two different interpretations of a reality. It's been that way in baseball for decades, and it's not changing anytime soon. But another comment made in passing by Fehr on Thursday should still provide fans some hope.
"It is my hope that if we don't move toward a perfect [working] agreement, we find one acceptable to both sides," Fehr said.
In one short sentence, gone is the all-or-nothing negotiating tactics of years past. And gone is the consideration solely for one point of view. Because of that new framework, fans should expect to see some meaningful progress on the aforementioned differences rather quickly.
"Only time will tell, but I'm an optimist by nature," Selig said.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide