The two sides were scheduled to meet Wednesday, with no common ground apparent. The owners, for instance, recently released charts that suggest a gap in payrolls—from a low of $15.5 million for the San Diego Padres to a high of $52.1 million for the Braves—is "ruining" baseball's competitive balance. The players countered with their own bar graphs illustrating that such payroll gaps have been common since at least 1983 and that competitive balance has never been better. In the past 15 years, 23 of the 28 major league clubs have reached the postseason.
It was as if two doctors held the same X-ray up to the light, with one of them saying the patient required immediate surgery and the other declaring the patient perfectly fit. "I can't bring him around," Ravitch says of Fehr. "Only the players will bring him around."
The futility of the situation is exacerbated by a prickly relationship between the two principal negotiators. In one of their first meetings, Ravitch laid out to Fehr his preferred approach to negotiations: He likes to develop a personal bond with his opposite number to facilitate a deal through backroom bargaining. Fehr was jolted by the idea. Battle-hardened and adversarial after 17 years of negotiating for the players, he wanted no such coziness, and he would not think of excluding players from the front line. The personal conflict has heightened since. "It's a problem," admits one insider to the negotiations. "It's getting worse."
To further complicate matters, these talks are not about finding room for compromise on such issues as pensions (as was the case in 1972), free agency ('76), free-agent compensation ('81) or salary arbitration ('90). This time it is a yes-or-no issue: whether or not to adopt a system that would fix costs for owners. The players have come down resolutely on the no side.
How long will that stalemate be allowed to go on before Selig and other owners join Ravitch at the bargaining table, especially if the Ravitch-Fehr conflict worsens? The union may be more willing to listen to club executives with whom they have a cordial working history, such as Paul Beeston of the Toronto Blue Jays, John Ellis of the Seattle Mariners and John Harrington of the Boston Red Sox.
Oddly, the owners are betting the same development that has traditionally favored the players—that the other side will split when a substantial portion of its membership begins to feel the financial consequences—will work to their advantage this time. During the 50-day strike of 1981, the average loss per player was $1,079 a day, based on an average salary of $185,651. This year, with an average salary of $1.2 million, the average loss per player would be $6,977 a day.
The players have about $175 million in licensing money stockpiled as a strike fund, but that will evaporate quickly. For example, if that fund was disbursed at the rate of $6,977 per player each day, it would last 31 days. That means the players would soon be left to their own resources, which raises the intriguing question: Because the players now make so much money, are they better insulated to withstand a lengthy strike or are they more likely to give in because so much more money is at stake?
"That's a good question," says Kansas City Royal pitcher David Cone. "The union has cautioned us for some time to prepare for something like this, and the licensing money will help, so I don't think players are going to have trouble paying their mortgages."
If that's true, then October, with the emotional and financial wealth of postseason play, looms as the most likely breaking point—with the owners more apt to crack at that time than the players. By then most of the players are typically home, their seasons finished, and would not be getting paid anyway. For the owners, the postseason means 75% of their television income. The pressure to salvage that money may be enormous after weeks of lost gate receipts without the cushion of the $50 million in strike insurance that emboldened management in 1981; this year the owners have none.
That prospect did not stop Jerry Reinsdorf, the hawkish owner of the Chicago White Sox, from recently laying out a scenario in which the game would be shut down until 1996. "I don't think it was a prediction," Ravitch says, "as much as a statement that the owners aren't going to give up so easily. I remain optimistic. The owners and players are not going to preside over the ruination of the game."