- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 9, 2002

CHICAGO Major league baseball players did not set a strike date following a five-hour board meeting here yesterday. But a procedure to do so in the next few weeks was established, pushing the game's fractious labor situation another step toward a ninth work stoppage since 1972.

The executive board of the Major League Baseball Players Association was authorized yesterday to set a strike date if need be. But they will first canvass the full union membership in the coming days and determine whether all players are truly ready to fight the owners on the game's economic structure to such bitter lengths again.

"[Former players] have paid the price for you. If it comes to [a strike], you pay the price for the future," said Cleveland pitcher Paul Shuey. "The possibility of a strike is out there. You have to be prepared."

Baseball's attendance has yet to fully recover from the 232-day strike of 1994-95, and public appetite for another work stoppage is nonexistent. But the players are talking strike yet again because they feel they are running out of options. A strike in their minds would be a pre-emptive move against the owners who, according to the union, may seek to unilaterally implement new economic rules governing industry following the World Series.

"From the players' standpoint, a strike is a last resort," union chief Donald Fehr said. "It would not be entered into unless the players feel they had no other viable option, and it is our hope over the next few weeks we will be able to have the kinds of serious and substantive discussions with major league owners we have heretofore been unable to have, and will resolve these issues."

Formal labor talks are scheduled to resume Thursday. Since 1972, owners and players have been unable to reach a new collective bargaining agreement without some form of work stoppage.

Yesterday's action marks another move toward repeating the ugly prelude to the strike eight years ago. In 1994, players met just before the All-Star Game, as they did here, and similarly granted union leaders the authority to set a strike date. On July 28, the Aug.14 walkout date was announced and ultimately used.

The core issues of the current debate, as they have been for more than a year, are revenue sharing and salary controls. The owners want to increase the amount of locally generated revenue shared equally among the clubs from 20 percent to 50 percent, and implement a 50 percent tax on payrolls more than $98million.

Owners insist the proposed changes are critical to both stem an industry operating loss they say reached $232million last year and a growing financial and competitive imbalance among teams. Baseball has none of the salary controls or widespread revenue sharing central to economic systems in the NFL and NBA.

The players are firmly resisting any artificial controls on salaries, and disagree with the owners on both the proper level and distribution method of revenue sharing in the next labor deal. A luxury tax has long been considered by the union a penalty on hiring and a poor attempt at revenue sharing. In actual dollar amounts, the two sides are roughly $70million apart on how much annual revenue should be shared.

"We're faced with a set of proposals in which the best operators in the game go into the red or further into the red," Fehr said. "That's difficult for us to deal with. We don't think it's good to reward failure and penalize success."

Having said that, Fehr added he thought the difference in revenue sharing proposals is "bridgeable."

"There will be substantial revenue sharing in the next collective bargaining agreement," he said.

The two sides have met sporadically for six months on a new collective bargaining agreement; the previous accord expired last November. But progress has been slowed in part due to a grievance on the owners' attempt to eliminate two teams, and there has been no agreement on any core issue. An independent arbitrator is expected to rule on the union grievance against contraction later this month, and the decision should color the tone and direction of the negotiations.

But beyond simple bargaining issues, baseball owners and players are grappling with generations of mutual distrust. To this day, each side believes the other is working more toward their own self interest and less for the general betterment of the game.

Players and owners are closer to agreement on developing a worldwide draft, Fehr said. Currently, players from many baseball-rich countries including Cuba and Japan are not subject to the draft and are quickly signed as free agents by high-revenue clubs.

Steroids, baseball's latest trouble affecting an already troubled industry, also was discussed during the union meeting. Union executives have long been opposed to random drug testing without cause, but some recent polls have suggest more of a willingness among the players to submit to testing.

"It is an issue that will be collectively bargained and dealt with seriously," Fehr said, declining to elaborate on the topic.

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