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Making Small Talk
Tom Verducci
September 26, 1994
How small-market teams, led by a car dealer, got control of baseball and drove it to a strike
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September 26, 1994

Making Small Talk

How small-market teams, led by a car dealer, got control of baseball and drove it to a strike

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Despite such cracks in the owners" seemingly solid front, their biggest problem is an uncertain future. They still have no agreement with a players' union that has resolve at least equal to the owners'. They also have no apparent detailed strategy on where to go from here, a perilous position given that the strike could extend into next season.

McMorris confirms that the owners intend to impose new work rules on Nov. 1 in the likely event that no agreement with the players can be reached by then. But exactly what rules will they implement other than the salary cap? From the large issues—such as eliminating salary arbitration and restricting free agency—stem numerous tricky details that have to be resolved. For instance, would the owners credit striking players with service time? "A good question," says one owner. "I hadn't thought of that." If not, a player such as Jack McDowell of the Chicago White Sox would fall just shy of the six years of service needed to become an unrestricted free agent.

It seems that the owners have not so much masterminded an elaborate scheme to ultimately break the union, as the players like to believe, as they have concentrated on building and maintaining consensus. The players decided to strike on Aug. 12 rather than later in the season in part because that date allowed the owners time to fold up like lawn chairs and preserve the postseason. McMorris calls that thinking "a huge miscalculation on their part." Steinbrenner even charges that union executive director Donald Fehr "has a credibility problem with his people. He told them the owners always capitulate. Now it's not happening."

Fehr says the owners" resolve doesn't surprise him; that's why the union stockpiled a strike fund of $200 million in licensing money the past four years.

Still, even as late as Sept. 10, each side seemed to underestimate the other. At a negotiating session that day, Dodger pitcher Orel Hershiser stood up and, according to Atlanta Brave president Stan Kasten, said, "It doesn't matter what we do. You're going to get rid of Selig and Ravitch, get a new negotiating team, and you're going to cave in." Kasten buried his face in his hands.

"That was my saddest moment in this whole thing," Kasten says. "What a grave misunderstanding. But that's what the union has them believing. That's why the union feels up to now they don't have to negotiate. I've had more than one player say that to me."

The union also likes to say the owners began mobilizing for a confrontation when they forced out Fay Vincent as commissioner in 1992 after Vincent refused to surrender all his authority in labor matters. True, that left no one to gum up the owners' works. Just as important, though, is the fact that the owners handed the commissioner's authority to Selig, whose similarity to Zelig, Woody Allen's celluloid character, goes beyond the name: Both have an uncanny ability to assimilate. Friend to all, Selig has the owners playing Buddy Ball.

"I didn't think it could be accomplished, what he did," says Bill Giles, president of the Philadelphia Phillies. "He has a way of building consensus, of getting opposite views to get to a middle ground. He works the phone."

Selig also benefited from a large turnover in ownership. One out of every four owners today has never operated a ball club under the auspices of a true commissioner. Being steered by a fellow owner seems perfectly right to them. "I don't know it any other way," McMorris says.

Further, many of these new owners ignored the unwritten rules of this exclusive club about kowtowing to senior owners. They also brought to baseball keen business acumen and, in some cases, records for taking a hard line against organized labor. Kansas City Royal chairman David Glass is chief executive of Wal-Mart Stores, which has fought unionization of its truckers and clerks, and he is prepared to field a team of scabs next season. "Kansas City is going to have professional baseball next year if I have anything to do with it," he says.

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