Major league baseball owners would be the Washington Generals of labor negotiations if only their winning percentage were a little better. While they talk a good game of solidarity at the beginning of each confrontation with the players' union, their commitment inevitably turns out to be as embarrassingly brief as Bill Clinton's running shorts.
"But history doesn't always repeat itself," says Richard Ravitch, the 61-year-old professional trouble-shooter who is serving for the first time as the owners' chief negotiator. "This time we're ready."
This time the owners are ready to prove how tough they are. They are so dedicated to obtaining a salary cap that they are pushing the players out on strike, deepening a conflict that is as painfully simple as two children seeing which of them can hold their breath the longest.
The strategy of both sides is not so much to negotiate—Ravitch conceded last week that "serious negotiations" have yet to take place—as it is simply to outlast the enemy. That means the owners, if their commitment is indeed rock solid this time, are willing to see the World Series wiped out. That stands as a real possibility, given the entrenchment in each camp.
The players have not the slightest interest in a cap, and who can blame them? It would hold down player salaries, restrict the movement of free agents and render salary arbitration unworkable. Therefore the players were planning to announce a strike date by the end of this week. They will walk out, according to one source, sometime between Aug. 8 and Aug. 20, barring anything short of a deus ex machina. In fact, a prolonged strike appears so probable that games have begun to take on an end-of-season urgency, with an eye to the possibility that the remainder of the regular season will be wiped out but the postseason will be salvaged.
The owners could remove the need for a player strike at any time by promising not to exercise their right under labor law to impose unilaterally a contract settlement—i.e., a cap—after the scheduled end to the postseason. (A strike would be a preemptive step by the players to thwart such a unilateral action.) Such a promise by the owners would amount to a logical laying down of weapons while the season and the talks continue. That olive branch, however, would most likely leave the owners with at least another year of the current economic system, a notion, so repugnant to many of them that they are willing to suffer huge losses now to avoid it.
"There's been too much of the Scarlett O'Hara philosophy in this game: 'I'll think about it tomorrow,' " says Bud Selig, baseball's quasi-commissioner and the owner of the Milwaukee Brewers, the sort of small-market team that stands to benefit more from the cap than a well-heeled, large-market franchise like the Atlanta Braves. "Well, tomorrow is here."
In the event of a long strike, the losses for the game would go beyond money. They could include the end of the record-challenging work of players such as Ken Griffey, Frank Thomas and Matt Williams, who are chasing Roger Maris's single-season home run mark, and Tony Gwynn, who is bidding to become the first .400 hitter since 1941; a halt to the start-up momentum of The Baseball Network, the owners' quirky new television-marketing venture; and a setback in the public's acceptance of the newly expanded divisional play, which was designed to take the pennant race to more cities. Selig will have an especially hard time convincing the title-starved fans in Cleveland, Montreal and Texas that it is worth kissing off the postseason. The owners wanted to get September back from football, but here they are ready to forfeit the autumn entirely.
Yes, once again the owners are busy running around chirping that the sky is falling—but they really mean it this time—a warning the players won't believe unless a chunk whacks them on the head. Donald Fehr, executive director of the players' union, has suggested the owners support the weak franchises by sharing revenues among themselves without asking the players to be the underwriters.
"If the owners persist in their thinking that they want an artificially controlled mechanism to drive down salaries and destroy free agency," Fehr says, "the players have very few options left. This is not the sort of thing that keeps you up at night thinking about your options. They are systematically leaving the players with one option."