- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 25, 2006

DETROIT. — Baseball chief operating officer Bob DuPuy walked by me last night before the start of Game 3 of the World Series between the St. Louis Cardinals and Detroit Tigers with a big smile befitting a man who had a five-year labor agreement to announce to the world.

“You sure this is big enough to break the rule of announcements during the World Series?” I asked him, referring to baseball commissioner Cadillac Bud Selig’s desire to have nothing take away from the attention on the series.

“Yes, I think this qualifies as the exception,” he said. “This, and the D.C. stadium.”

What about parking garages, Bob?

No, this was something a little different — something unprecedented in the tumultuous labor history of the game — an agreement between owners and the players union before the current one expired. An agreement without threats and acrimony. An agreement that players union boss Don Fehr said he wondered if he would ever see in his lifetime.

“I never was sure it could happen or would happen until this time,” said Fehr, speaking of the deal reached by both sides without the fear and loathing that has accompanied nearly every single negotiation between the two sides in the past and once — 12 years ago — shut down the game and resulted in the postseason being cancelled.

“We’ve come a long way since then,” Cadillac Bud said.

Yes, they have, from the abyss of marathon labor talks and federal mediators and congressional threats to the kumbaya attitude that prevailed yesterday between Cadillac Bud and Fehr.

“The attitude brought to the table was a big factor,” Fehr said.

Even the existing labor agreement that is about to expire — the first one after eight work stoppages between 1972 and 1995 that was made without an interruption to the game — came to a conclusion after threats of contraction and other saber-rattling on both sides five years ago.

The Washington Nationals (who will get their draft picks for Alfonso Soriano if he signs as a free agent elsewhere) — then the Montreal Expos — were a major pawn in that battle, one of the targeted teams threatened with contraction. They were in Philadelphia on the eve of the day the game was threatened with yet another shutdown, in the final hours of the talks, and players didn’t know if this was the last time they would ever play together as a team, or be spread around to other clubs.

There was uncertainty from coast to coast. “I was in Milwaukee, and I remember wondering if the bus was going to leave,” said pitcher Ray King, one of the players who participated in the labor talks this time around.

So what made the outcome this time around so different?

The attitude on the owners side in most of the past negotiations was a determination to crush the union, from the collusion of the 1980s to the replacement players they tried to field 12 years ago. The old guard that was still angry about having to negotiate with the players is long gone, and replaced by a number of new owners without the baggage of past labor fights.

Also, the union, for the first time, found itself on its heels in the steroid controversy and weakened by the pressure to give in to stricter drug testing this past winter. Its membership found itself fighting amongst each other about the need for stricter drug testing. Its resolve would have been severely tested by any kind of work stoppage.

Then, there was both sides working together to organize the World Baseball Classic this past spring. “The World Baseball Classic was a wonderful experience,” Cadillac Bud said. “We made it work as partners, and it was a great precursor for what has happened here.”

Cadillac Bud said this is the “golden era” of baseball, and another reason why both sides made a deal is probably because there is more than enough gold to go around for everyone, with $5.2 billion in revenues this year. But the tarnish of the performance-enhancing substances remain. There is no provision for testing for human growth hormones in the new agreement, and it won’t even be addressed until there is a “valid” test for it, both Cadillac Bud and Fehr said.

And, in the midst of this historic agreement, there is the ongoing controversy over what was in Kenny Rogers’ pitching hand Sunday night, still raging here in St. Louis, where one fan brought a slew of signs to Busch Stadium last night that included, “Employees wash your hands before leaving the dugout,” and also brought a stuffed Tiger with dirt on its left paw. And the glow of the labor agreement will be an afterthought if there is a Game 6, when Rogers is scheduled to take the mound again.

“This is a wonderful day, and quite frankly, a wonderful story,” Cadillac Bud said.

But it doesn’t trump a handful of dirt.

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