- The Washington Times - Monday, July 8, 2002

MILWAUKEE There are few events that showcase all that is right with baseball like the All-Star Game. And when 60 of the game's greatest players descend upon Milwaukee's Miller Park today and tomorrow for the annual exhibition, it will represent the best baseball has to offer.
There are few events, however, that reveal all that is wrong with baseball like a meeting of the players union. And the union gathering today in Chicago a mere 90 miles from the All-Star festivities to discuss the possibility of an impending strike is a harsh reminder of the worst baseball has to offer.
A critical moment in the sport's history is fast approaching. As the economic disparity between large- and small-market ball clubs grows to staggering new proportions, so too does the difference in opinion between management and labor.
With ongoing negotiations seemingly nowhere near a peaceful resolution, the union is contemplating setting a date for a strike, one that could lead to a prolonged work stoppage and alienate fans to frightening new levels.
Sound familiar? It should. Eight years ago, the union met during the All-Star break in Pittsburgh threatening to set a strike date. The announcement did not come for another two weeks, but it resulted in a 232-day strike that wiped out the 1994 World Series and did irreparable damage to the sport.
Now it seems to be happening all over again.
Though the player representatives from all 30 teams who meet today in Chicago are not expected to establish a firm strike date, an announcement may not be far off. There is a growing perception that the players will walk sometime in mid-August (just as they did Aug. 12, 1994) in what they feel would be a pre-emptive move to possible work rule changes by the owners once the 2002 season ends.
Has it really come to this once again? Didn't everyone on both sides of the argument learn anything from the '94 strike? Wouldn't it stand to reason that the owners and players would come to some sort of compromise before letting the sport kill itself?
"All I can say is there remains a lot of work to do," union head Donald Fehr said. "But we're committed to doing it. On the players' side, a strike is the last resort. You hope you never have to get to it."
If there is one common trait between the adversaries, it is an acute understanding of the ramifications of a work stoppage. Whether it lasts one day, one month or one year, both Fehr and baseball commissioner Bud Selig know what a strike might do to the game.
Bob DuPuy, baseball's chief operating officer, compares a possible work stoppage to "the detonation of a nuclear weapon."
"It would be terrible," DuPuy said. "I think it's the one thing that gives you some hope that we'll make a deal."
"There's not going to be a baseball strike," Seattle Mariners manager Lou Piniella told reporters last week. "You may hear that rhetoric, but it's not going to happen. It doesn't make sense, and I'm not even remotely concerned about a strike."
Unfortunately, not much has been accomplished to ensure that won't be the case.
Negotiators for the union and the owners have met sporadically over the last six months in an attempt to produce a new collective bargaining agreement. (The 2002 season has been played without one in effect.)
But the owners' primary proposals an increase in revenue sharing from 20 percent to 50 percent and a 50 percent "luxury" tax on all teams with payrolls over $98million have fallen on deaf ears. They aren't even going to attempt to negotiate a salary cap, a practice small-market owners would love but will never convince the union to accept.
The players, whose average salary is at an all-time high of $2.38million, fear that the owners' proposed changes will drive down the market on free agents and make clubs less-willing to shell out big bucks to top athletes. The union is willing to agree to 22.5 percent revenue sharing but to this point has taken a hard-line stance against the luxury tax, which it equates with a true salary cap.
Making matters even more complicated are two current hot-button issues: drug testing and franchise contraction.
Many around the sport are clamoring for mandatory drug testing on all major leaguers after recent remarks by retired MVPs Ken Caminiti and Jose Canseco that as many as half of professional ballplayers use steroids. The owners have added a drug testing provision to their formal offer; the union has not publicly taken a stance but is wary of any acts that might infringe on a player's privacy.
"You have an issue which has a lot of significance and a lot of publicity," Fehr said. "The owners have put a proposal on the table, and we have an obligation to bargain about it in good faith."
The contraction issue seemingly has been placed on the backburner for several months. But with independent arbitrator Shyam Das expected to rule in the next week whether owners have the right to eliminate clubs unilaterally, contraction quickly could find its way back onto the negotiating table.
"If we prevail, we're going to be bargaining about whether or not they can do it," Fehr said. "If they prevail, we're going to be arguing about the effects of contraction. So as far as we can tell, we still look at it as a front-burner issue."
With so many issues at play, it is perhaps not surprising that the two sides have had so much trouble trying to forge an agreement. But why would the players be mulling a strike, particularly one at this point in the season?
Because if the matter remains unresolved through the remainder of the season, the union fears the owners will take matters into their own hands and implement their proposals without bargaining with the players.
Back in March, Selig issued a pledge not to institute any rule changes or lock out the players during the 2002 season. That promise may have won over the public, but it led the union to believe the owners are merely planning to wait until after the season to impose a lockout, much as basketball owners did following the 1998 NBA Finals.
"In other words, they have a fight but entirely of their own time and choosing and on their own turf," one union source said. "Bud conspicuously made a no-lockout pledge, which went to the end of this season and no farther. We'd be pretty foolish to walk right into it."
So the players feel their only feasible move may be a pre-emptive, midseason strike.
That's not to say the union actually is committed to staging a walkout, even if it announces a hard-fast strike date. Such an announcement simply may speed up the negotiating process and create a much-needed sense of urgency.
"The purpose of setting a strike date is always to focus the bargaining to try to get a deal," the union source said. "You don't set a strike date to go on strike."
But if the owners do not take the bait and the players are forced to strike, then what? No one can foretell whether this strike would last two days (like the August 1985 walkout), 50 days (1981) or 232 days (1994-95).
It would be easy to compare the current situation to the disastrous '94 strike, but Fehr cautions against that.
"There's a tendency to look at history and draw parallels," he said. "And history is instructive, especially in this industry, where we've had so many difficulties. But you have to be careful not to presuppose that just because something happened the last time means it's going to happen the same way this time."
To this point, the majority of the rhetoric being offered up has come from the players' side. That's because Selig issued a gag order before the season began, stipulating that any franchise owner who spoke out on the labor situation would be subject to a $1million fine.
Selig, however, has begun to loosen the leash on the owners, and in recent days a handful of them have begun voicing their opinions in support of the commissioner.
"Have you ever seen such treacherous times in major league baseball?" Houston Astros owner Drayton McLane Jr. said last week. "Not just labor strife but the disparity in revenue and the amount teams are spending. It's just out of whack."
No matter who is doing the speaking, seemingly everyone around the game questions whether baseball could recover from a lengthy labor battle, even though a run of historic events in the mid-to-late '90s helped save the sport from its near-implosion.
"The damage done in '94 was devastating, and we got lucky," DuPuy said. "We had the Yankees' run, David Wells' perfect game, Cal Ripken's streak, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa in 1998. That got people energized about baseball again.
"Who knows if we're going to get that lucky again? Everybody's scared about that."

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