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No Games Today

At an impasse with club owners over the issue of free-agent compensation, major league players went on strike

By Jim Kaplan

Issue date: June 22, 1981

Sports Illustrated Flashback If there were any doubts that baseball is our national sport, the events of last week should have dispelled them. A ruling by Federal Judge Henry F. Werker led to the first strike with a season in progress in the history of major league American sport. The judge ended his decision with the ironic, plaintive and paradoxical words, "PLAY BALL!!!" Then, by heaven, they played ball.

  June 10, 1981 cover. Lane Stewart
Oh yes they did. In San Diego they played Fantasy Baseball. The creation of Paul Palmer, vice-president and general manager of television station KFMB, Fantasy Baseball is a series of highlights from old tapes, in which the Padres win every game and storm into first place. In Houston the Astros were still playing. Well, sort of. Radio station KENR filled airtime with re-creations of past games. and The Houston Post reprinted its original stories on them. And on Ted Turner's nationwide cable-TV channel, Ronald Reagan was pitching his way to glory as Grover Cleveland Alexander in The Winning Team.

This rare strain of Baseball Fever began to spread last Friday when the 650 major league players walked out for the third time in nine years. In 1972 the players had canceled the first 13 days of the regular season and in 1980, eight days of exhibitions. But those were merely passing storms. This year's impasse, the culmination of a bitter and confusing 18-month dispute, could dampen spirits indefinitely.

This is a struggle in which the workers fought to preserve the status quo and avoid a strike, while the bosses sought radical change and courted a walkout. The players and owners never met face-to-face, only their representatives did. Negotiations became non-negotiations. The commissioner of baseball all but told the world that his words were meaningless, his authority a joke. Judge Werker was quite right to use the words, "Play ball" when he ruled against the National Labor Relations Board's request for a strike-delaying injunction. Fair had become foul and foul fair.

The issue wasn't just high salaries; it was freedom. In 1975 arbitrator Peter Seitz had ruled that the option clause in the contracts of pitchers Dave McNally and Andy Messersmith bound them to their clubs in perpetuity, and to make free agents of every player whose option year expired at the end of the 1976 season. But even the athletes realized that total freedom could result in chaotic bidding. Therefore, in 1976 they agreed to a four-year contract that limited the free-agent option to players with six years of major league experience. Clubs losing free agents would receive at most an amateur draft choice as compensation.

The result was an unprecedented increase in salaries. In 1976, according to Major League Players Association estimates, the average salary was approximately $52,300. By 1980 it had risen to $143,756, owing largely to the seven-figure, multi-year contracts many owners were willingly throwing at free agents, among them such questionable commodities as Pitcher John Curtis (Sand Diego) and Second Baseman Rennie Stennett (San Francisco). Why didn't the owners agree to limit their own spending? Because that would have been a violation of antitrust laws. Instead, they opened the 1980 contract talks by proposing what amounted to a "giveback" on free agency. A club losing a "ranking" or "quality" free agent, according to the owners' proposal, would be compensated with a major-leaguer from the signing team. To qualify as a ranking performer, a free agent would have to be among the top 50% in his league according to a formula based on playing time and be drafted by a least eight teams within a designated number of rounds (based on the number of players in the draft). The signing team could protect either 15 or 18 player from compensation, depending on whether the free agent's playing time qualified him for the top third or top half.

Cloaking their concern over salaries, the owners said their objective was to preserve baseball's "competitive balance." Actually, the balance of power had improved; and judging from record attendance and television contracts, the same was true of the teams' incomes. The fans, who are often described as "victimized" by high salaries, were doing just fine, too. The average ticket price of $4.53 was the lowest in major sport.

The players protested that the owners' plan would reduce salaries, bargaining power and freedom of movement. They argued that if a club had to surrender a major-leaguer for signing a free agent, it would be much more selective about whom it sought and how much it offered. The owners stood firm. A strike was averted last May because of a plan proposed by Marvin Miller, executive director of the Players Association. Under Miller's plan, the compensation issue was tabled while a four-man player-executive committee studied the matter. If the committee couldn't arrive at an agreement, negotiations would resume. If they, too, failed, the owners could implement their proposal in 1981 and the players could set a strike date. To most people the 1980 settlement looked like a way to reach a compromise.

But not to the club owners. In a press release accompanying the 1980 accord, their chief negotiator, Ray Grebey, was quoted as saying, "... the Clubs' proposal for compensation becomes a part of the Basic Agreement and it cannot be removed without agreement of the two sides."

That position was reflected in the 1981 round of negotiations. Only twice did Grebey formally "modify" the 1980 proposal -- once after the players went to the National Labor Relations Board charging an unfair labor practice, and again about 24 hours before last Friday's strike deadline. The first proposal suggested some performance criteria for ranking free agents, as the players had demanded, but kept intact the 15-18 and 50% formulas and added some technical modifications the players regarded as regressions. The second, in addition to dropping the percentage for ranking players from 50 to 40, said this: Any team signing a free agent would designate, from its 40-man roster, a 25-player pool from which a club losing a free agent could select compensation. The owners, in essence were doing little more than rewording their 15-month-old proposal. The players said no. Meanwhile, the owners had implemented their proposal and the players had set a May 29 strike date.

"For some time now, it's been obvious that Ray Grebey and [Commissioner] Bowie Kuhn have been intent on provoking a strike," Miller said last month. "Both of them have told the owners, 'We got compensation last year.' Now they've either got to settle and get egg on their faces or bull it out, hoping to starve out the players and get compensation.

The four proposals Miller presented this spring each addressed, however modestly, a concern of management's, but they were rejected with little discussion. Did the owner want a monetary award for clubs losing free agents, as they had proposed in 1976? Miller had an idea for one. Were clubs concerned about losing their players to free agency? The rules governing trades of players in the last year of their contracts could be liberalized. In a third proposal, Miller outlined a criteria that would classify up to 5% of all players as ranking free agents, and implied he could go higher. Finally, stressing his "flexibility," Miller broached the idea of a pool in which each club would make available four players from its 40-man roster who could be used as compensation for teams losing free agents. The players seemed to be moving slowly toward meeting Grebey's objectives: "increased equity, a professional ballplayer" as compensation. No, no, no and no, said the owners. "They want us to keep proposing until we hit Bingo," said Miller bleakly.

The Players Association claimed an unfair labor practice in that the clubs wouldn't open their books in support of a contention that salaries were putting them in a bind. Ultimately, counsel for the NLRB sought the injunction that Judge Werker denied last week. Had he granted it, a strike would have been postponed for a year. "It's important that we resolve compensation now," said Grebey. The owners many not have wanted a strike, but they had their reasons to provoke it, as surely as they prepared for it and argued against the injunction that would at least have delayed it. As Grebey himself said, the companies that sold the owners $50 million worth of strike insurance this year might get cold feet in 1982. Further, the owners don't want November's reentry draft conducted without significant compensation. Finally, some owners melodramatically cast the strike as the ultimate showdown with Miller (who is expected to retire this year) for "control of the game." So they pushed the players to the brink -- and beyond. The strike should be every bit as bizarre as the events that preceded it. For one thing, some people will profit despite it. Outfielder Mitchell Page, demoted last week from Oakland to Tacoma, will collect a major league salary in the minors. And the umpires get 45 days' pay.

The fans, meanwhile, were getting shut out from major league baseball -- and they didn't like it. A phone-in poll conducted by NBC last weekend showed that 53% of the 162,802 respondents favored the owners. "Those ballplayers better talk to some auto workers and steelworkers," Martha Cummings wrote in The Houston Post. "Good Japanese ballplayers can be imported, too.

But surely some players deserve sympathy. Twins rookie Pitcher Brad Havens was promoted from Orlando just before the strike. If he'd stayed there, he would be making $1,700 a month. Now he's getting zip. "I'd rather be in the big leagues on strike," he said bravely.

The average salary in major league baseball today is about $175,000 a year. It may strain credulity to suggest that some players now face financial hardship, but it may also be true. "Some of these guys will be broke in a month," said Giants Manager Frank Robinson. The lowest-paid Ranger, Dan Duran, who makes the major league minimum of $32,500 is dropping $181 a day (based on a 180-day season); the highest-paid player in baseball, the Yankees' Dave Winfield ($1,400,000), a cool $7,777. "I'll try to make ends meet," he says.

Philosophically, the players and owners are light-years apart. Legally, strike-wrought complications could stall a settlement for weeks. And financially, the owners seemed to be hunkered down for a long delay. After a 13-day, 152-game deductible period expires on June 24, their $50 million in strike insurance will pay them $100,000 a game through 500 games -- until Aug. 8. They also have $15 million worth of mutual assistance funds they've been stockpiling for two years.

Does this sounds like a one-sided battle? Not necessarily. The owners will save on salaries and other expenses, but they'll lose a considerable amount of game income: an average of almost $5 per ticket, a few bucks per lost customer for concessions and, barring substitute arrangements, pro-rated portions of local TV and radio income (an average of $1.86 million per team for 1981) and the national TV package ($1.6 million per team).

"In a short strike, we'll lose money," says California Executive Vice-President Buzzie Bavasi. "But if the rest of the season is out, what with insurance and no costs, we'd break even -- maybe even make a few bucks."

But not as much as they'd make if the season were on. The Angels had pre-sold 90,000 tickets and expected to take in $600,000, everything included, for three weekend games with the Red Sox. They were of course canceled. Los Angeles, which leads baseball with an average home crowd of 46,000, can't possibly benefit from the strike, though the Twins (8,000 a game) would. In another season of potentially record-breaking attendance -- it was up more than a million compared to 1980 -- most teams will lose money precisely because they've been making it.

The effects of the strike will be felt well down the line:

The minors. "Short term there'll be no effect," says minor league President John Johnson." Our attendance might even increase because of the absence of major league telecasts. But we're under working agreements with major league teams; how long can they afford to subsidize us?"

The media. The status of baseball's $41.5-million-a-year national TV package hadn't been determined last week, but it seems doubtful the clubs will collect every cent. "Maybe they could double up on broadcasts after the settlement," says Tom Villante, baseball's executive director of marketing and broadcasting. "Where?" responds an ABC Sports executive. "It could be chaotic." NBC, which has contracted to broadcast 27 Saturday games, substituted highlights of the 1975 World Series' sixth game the day after the strike began; the proud peacock will blushingly rush a sports anthology show into available Saturday spots. ABC, which had contracted to air Monday and, beginning in August, Sunday broadcasts planned to show the movie Elvis! in Monday's slot.

Related enterprises. At an average Astro game, 22,750 bags of peanuts, 14,000 buckets of popcorn and 3,300 gallons of beer are sold. Somewhere at the Houston Popcorn and Supply Company, 100,000 pounds of Virginia peanuts are in cold storage. "Last year's drought made them difficult to obtain and expensive," says company President Augie Schmitt. "Suppose the Astros don't play the rest of the year? What am I going to do -- eat them myself?" And what about John Henzl, the organist at Wrigley Field, who apparently hadn't gotten the news. On Friday he reported for a game with the Padres and played for half an hour before someone told him to go home.

The benefits. A player on the disabled list can in most cases use clubhouse equipment to rehabilitate himself. A healthy player, however, can't use balls, bats fields or other strictly baseball-oriented tools of the trade that are owned by the clubs. Time counting toward free agency is being withheld, and there may already be some casualties. The Yankees' Ron Guidry, who needed all but nine days of the 1981 season, now might not be a free agent until 1982.

Did it have to end this way? Unfortunately, yes. For one reason, the study commission's sessions were also attended by the negotiating teams. "Both sides were encumbered," says an observer. The same was true of negotiations. The players felt the owners were asking them to compromise a right as basic as free speech. "We have something we won in the courts and they're trying to take it away," said Cleveland's Bert Blyleven. Of course, the players had compromised their freedom with the 1976 settlement. But, given the militancy of his charges, Miller had to move slowly toward increasing compensation to include even good prospects from the minor leagues. Disturbing the 25-man major league roster, he said privately, was impossible. At the same time, however, Grebey was saying, "There has to be compensation from the 25-man roster. That's the bottom line."

The Cincinnati Enquirer called the negotiations "the bores of summer." Ken Moffett, the federal mediator who had to attend hours of fruitless debate, was equally frustrated. "These are the most bizarre negotiations I've been involved in during 22 years as a mediator," he said. "The issues are resolvable, but there's no negotiating."

On June 3, in Rochester, N.Y., Judge Werker began hearing the NLRB's player-supported request for the injunction. To the stand came Commissioner Kuhn, whose virtually unlimited powers in behalf of the game's "best interests" have been gathering cobwebs of late. Back on Dec. 8, Kuhn said at the winter meetings that high salaries bred by free agency were driving the game toward fiscal disaster. Might Kuhn's views reflect those of the Player Relations Committee? asked the player and NLRB attorneys who were trying to open baseball's books. "I am not a spokesman for the PRC," Kuhn said, "either publicly or in collective bargaining." For whom does Kuhn speak?

As this tale of pride and paradox dissolved into a strike, Miller added yet another ironic twist. Responding to owner complaints that only he obstructs a settlement, Miller withdrew from negotiations. The union is now represented by four players -- Doug Decinces and Mark Belanger of the Orioles, Bob Boone of the Phillies and the Expos' Steve Rogers -- assisted by Players Association counsel Don Fehr. Other players can attend. Unfortunately, the owners won't be on the other side of the table. Grebey and his assistants have banned the owners throughout and, according to some front-office executives, have been less than zealous in keeping them informed.

So there's your scenario for a prolonged strike. Marvin Miller, the man who taught baseball about collective bargaining, won't be at the table. And the owners he should be speaking to will remain in the dark.

Play ball.

Issue date: June 22, 1981

 


 
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