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Baseball owners are expected to announce this week that they will lock players out of spring training starting on Feb. 15, the day camps are scheduled to open, unless the owners and the players have come to terms on a new collective-bargaining agreement by then. SI's Tim Kurkjian reports on the discouraging state of the negotiations.
The chances of an agreement's being reached anytime soon are about as great as those of seeing Players Association executive director Don Fehr and chief management negotiator Chuck O'Connor form the Yankees' double-play combination on Opening Day. The two sides are separated by a philosophical chasm.
The negotiators meet several times a week. The discussion is always the same. O'Connor says that unless salaries are brought under control, teams in the smaller, less lucrative markets won't be able to afford to compete. He argues for revenue sharing, with a salary cap for each team linked to overall major league income. He brings up the owners' pay-for-performance (PFP) plan, which would base player salaries solely on individual statistics and would eliminate multiyear contracts, the 20% limit on annual pay cuts, and salary arbitration for players with fewer than six years in the majors.
Fehr's response is always the same. He points out that the sport is healthier and wealthier than ever. He says that the current system of liberal free agency and salary arbitration works. It has encouraged competitive balance, allowed owners to take home hefty profits and boosted the average player salary to nearly $500,000 a year. "Why reinvent the wheel?" he asks.
Fehr and his union don't merely want to maintain the status quo, however. They want players to become eligible for arbitration after two years, not three, and the minimum salary to be increased from $68,000 to $100,000 or more. They want 25-man, not 24-man, rosters and guarantees that the owners will not collude in the free-agent market to hold down salaries, as they have in at least two of the last five years. But the owners don't want to listen to any union proposals until the players have accepted revenue sharing. "There's no middle ground," says Baltimore Oriole pitcher Jeff Ballard, a player representative.
The collusion cases and the 1981 and '85 player strikes have taken their toll. "This relationship has been permeated by distrust," says O'Connor. The negotiations have at least been civil. O'Connor, a Washington, D.C., lawyer and labor negotiator brought in by the owners in November, speaks highly of Fehr and the union. But as Fehr puts it, "Just because I am your friend doesn't mean I'm going to sell you my $400,000 house for $200,000."
Because so much of their TV revenue is tied to postseason play, owners would rather lock out the players now than have them go on strike in, say, August after having collected most of their salaries. In any case, it's getting late. Businesses in Florida and Arizona are panicking over the huge losses they will sustain if Grapefruit and Cactus league play is delayed or canceled. Spring training plans for teams, players and fans are in limbo. This isn't your typical labor dispute. If General Motors goes on strike, Pontiacs can still be found all over dealers' lots. But without players, there is no baseball.
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