Fehr and Loathing
Efforts to end the baseball strike wobbled last Saturday when each side took the other's latest proposal as an insult. Then on Sunday talks collapsed completely. The chief negotiators left Scottsdale, Ariz., with no formal sessions expected until after the owners' meetings conclude in Florida on Thursday. The main issue remains a luxury tax: The players have proposed a 25% levy on payrolls exceeding $54 million—a figure surpassed last season only by the Detroit Tigers—that would generate money to be distributed among small-income teams through the owners' revenue-sharing plan. Management, by contrast, is calling for a 50% tax on payrolls of more than $40.7 million, a ceding 15 teams broke through last year. SI's Tim Kurkjian reports on the immovable object who's widely believed to be responsible for the owners' truculent stance.
As Major League Baseball Players Association executive director Don Fehr left another barren bargaining session on Saturday night, he invoked an ominous phrase from the past: "Remember what Reinsdorf said—May of '96, May of '96." Last June, Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf did indeed say that if the players went on strike during the 1994 season, he could envision a worst-case scenario in which they wouldn't return until May 1996. As the strike hit Day 206 on Sunday, with the two sides as distrustful of each other as they've ever been, Reinsdorf looked clairvoyant. In fact, the union believes that some of the owners have been planning for four years to overhaul baseball's economic system, even at the cost of keeping the players on strike for two years. And Fehr and at least one American League owner believe Reinsdorf is the mortar in that hard-line wall.
"I talk a lot," Reinsdorf says, 'If I make sense, I'm able to persuade people. All I've told the owners is, If you're going to fight the union, don't quit in the middle." As for a report that moderate Colorado Rockie owner Jerry McMorris was so frustrated with last week's nonevents that he threatened to turn his negotiating seat over to his colleague from Chicago, Reinsdorf forswears any interest in bellying up to the table himself: "If asked. I'd say no, because I don't believe Don is serious about making a deal. So I can't be wasting my time."
Fehr's animosity toward the owners—born of management's collusion and 15 years of labor battles—and Reinsdorf's similar feelings about Fehr are key points in the stalled talks. One owner says Reinsdorf "doesn't want to break the union, he wants the demise of Fehr." Reinsdorf says that's not so. "Don's not the issue. If someone had told me that he and his staff had been replaced by more moderate people, I'd be happy. But that's not going to happen, so it's not on my mind.
"One of the best strategies to rally the troops is to find a common enemy. And for five years I've been the common enemy. I've fought Fehr in several grievances. I've always stood up to him. [Union lawyer] Gene Orza called me a cancer and a threat to the game. So what's the big deal if I answer back?"
The big deal is that if the two sides degenerate any further into pettiness and name-calling, the chance of a settlement will evaporate altogether. As it is, says McMorris, only "a miracle" will keep the season from opening with the likes of Pedro Borbon (page 13).
You would think taciturn, businesslike and talented Steve Smith of the Atlanta Hawks was the logical heir to veteran Joe Dumars, the equally taciturn, businesslike and talented backcourt fixture with the Detroit Pistons—at least you would if you watched them both play. Actually, you would think the same thing if you watched them both watch. Dumars can produce, on demand, virtually every punch line from the 80 episodes of Sanford and Son he has on videotape. Although Smith was only two years old when the Redd Foxx series first aired in 1972, he, too, thanks to reruns, has become a devotee of the sitcom featuring America's favorite junkyard proprietor. Upon learning that Ted Turner, in addition to owning the Hawks, owns the rights to Sanford, Smith recently prevailed upon the team to give him tapes of all 138 episodes. It will take Smith all summer to work his way through The Compleat Sanford, but once he does, the torch will be passed. The moral of this story: Watching a lot of trash talk has a way of keeping one from engaging in it.
Trying Our Patience
We recently started a folder called "This Week's Sign from Judge Ito's Courtroom That the Apocalypse Is Upon Us," and it has gotten very fat very quickly. Several weeks ago we filed away the news of Al Cowlings's 900 number, which allows callers, for $2.99 a minute, to vent their feelings about the trial and listen to Cowlings's syrupy musings about his lifelong friendship with O.J. Simpson. Then we added the decision by Dog World magazine to dispatch a correspondent to report on the plaintively wailing Akita. But those two items pale before the recent announcement by a Cincinnati radio station—which shall remain nameless here, lest we give it the shameless publicity it seeks—to offer Simpson $1 million if he wears a T-shirt bearing its logo in court during closing arguments of his double-murder trial.