- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 27, 2002

Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig yesterday tried to reassure a nervous fan base, repeating a two-month-old pledge to not lock out the players this coming season. But the players' union still is uneasy about Selig's true intentions, as the game's fractious labor situation remains in trouble.

Just five days before the start of the 2002 season, Selig yesterday announced the owners would neither lock out the players nor unilaterally implement a new economic system. MLB and its players have operated without an active labor agreement since the previous accord expired in November. Negotiations since then have not produced any meaningful results, and given baseball's eight work stoppages since 1972, fans, sponsors and broadcast networks are all wary another will soon occur.

"Our fans deserve to know that the 2002 season will be played to completion without interruption and they deserve to know that now before we begin the new season," Selig said. "Therefore, on behalf of the clubs, I pledge that we will not take any economic action either in the form of a lockout or unilateral implementation against the [MLB] Players Association throughout the course of the season and postseason."

Selig first made the pledge in January during owners' meetings in Phoenix.

However, the commissioner's attempt at reassurance quickly backfired within union offices. MLBPA officials believe a lockout is still possible following the World Series in October. In fact, the owners would have much greater leverage to act during the offseason, when a move could affect player signings for the 2003 season. Players already are signed for 2002.

NBA owners made a somewhat similar move in 1998, scrapping the final three years of a six-year collective bargaining agreement and demanding a new deal immediately following the 1997-98 season. After quick and predictable disagreement with the players, the owners imposed a lockout, lasting 191 days and extending into the following season.

"The commissioner's announcement that there will be no unilateral changes of players' working conditions 'during the course of the season and postseason' should not be mistaken for more than it is, a tacit acknowledgment of the clubs' continuing intention to make precisely such changes when they really count, immediately after the postseason," said union chief Donald Fehr. "Unilateral implementations are only designed to affect the offseason, when players sign their contracts."

During the 1994-95 players' strike, baseball owners unsuccessfully attempted to impose new work rules, including a salary cap.

The union, while believing a new labor deal can be struck without a work stoppage, has refused to make a no-strike pledge to match Selig and the owners. Fehr frequently has called a strike "a last resort," but union sources say the players remain reluctant to give up a potential piece of leverage.

The owners claim they collectively lost $519million in 2001, and no one within baseball disputes a heavy imbalance between teams in both spending and competitive power. The union, however, paints a more positive picture of MLB's economic state, pointing to a doubling of industry revenue since 1996.

During numerous negotiations since November, the owners and players have exchanged proposals centered on sharing more revenue among teams, somewhat similar to what the NFL does. However, the owners want significantly more sharing of local revenue, as well as a luxury tax for high-spending teams something the union bitterly opposes.

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