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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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"What happened," one owner says, "is the middle-market teams cast the swing vote. When we talked about revenue sharing, it basically broke down into three groups of just about equal size—small, middle and large—with local television revenue being the most determining factor. The middle-market teams were in a position of really not being affected much one way or the other by revenue sharing. They sensed a need for a change, though, and aligned themselves with the small-market group."

The small-revenue group, with Selig of Milwaukee as its flag bearer, consists also of Kansas City, Montreal, San Francisco, Seattle and five teams that are looking for new owners: California, Minnesota, Oakland, Pittsburgh and San Diego. Ten middle-market clubs wholeheartedly joined their smaller brethren: Atlanta, both Chicago teams, Cleveland, Detroit, Florida, Houston, Philadelphia, St. Louis and Texas. Seven clubs—Baltimore. Boston, Colorado, Los Angeles, the two New York teams and Toronto—might be described as conscientious objectors, and though they had the most to lose by sharing their income, they were convinced of the need to present a unified front. The Reds, because of the impetuous Schott, are off in their own universe.

It was in Cincinnati in June that the owners galvanized their cause. After months of discussion they agreed to a proposal made by Selig that, in the event of a work stoppage, three quarters of the ownership, or 21 clubs, would have to approve a settlement rather than the simple majority required previously. "One of the reasons I was for it was, it would tell us if everyone was serious," one owner says. "If we didn't have 21 votes, based on past history, how long would we have lasted? Fifteen votes could have come quickly."

"That was a turning point," says McMorris. Not only did it seal the owners' unity for the coming strike, but it also ensured that the small-market point of view would dictate their battle plan.

As the talks unfolded, the owners found reasons to entrench themselves further. Many were upset when, in one session. Yankee pitcher Steve Howe, a seven-time drug offender, lectured them about ethics. Then, on Aug. 24, the union released a report by their economist, Roger Noll of Stanford University, that called the owners' claims of financial distress "pure fiction." Says McMorris, "I know some owners were offended by it."

Of course, the union claims the owners positioned themselves for an impasse all along. The owners' last proposal is also their first. What's more, Ravitch admitted he withheld from the union complete details of the owners' revenue-sharing plan. Selig calls it "an obvious lack of communication" that is typical in a process in which "we can't agree on basic facts." The union, when it files its inevitable claims of unfair labor practices on the part of the owners, will call Ravitch's action part of an overall failure to bargain in good faith.

The two sides remain on parallel tracks that seem to be hurtling them toward a courtroom. Says Marvin Miller, the former players' union executive director, "I can't think of any terms that would produce a settlement that would be ratified by the majority of the players and 21 of the 28 owners. I mean that seriously."

Though the Braves' Kasten says, "We're not out for a win; all we want is a tie," one of his colleagues may be more accurately describing management's and the union's true positions when he says that it looks now as if it has to be "a lose-lose situation. Each side has to feel like it's screwing the other side."

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