- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
When baseball spring training finally got under way last week, more than a fortnight late because of the labor dispute between the players and owners, it seemed almost as if all the acrimony of the past month had never existed, as if these were the good old days. Clusters of players goofed off in the outfield, while the hitters bombed the pitchers, who were not yet ready to throw curves. The palm trees fluttered against the ever-blue Florida and Arizona skies, and the fans leaning against the fences were talking about how cold it was back home in Detroit or Chicago or Milwaukee. And hoping, of course, that it would get colder.
At the Mets' camp in St. Petersburg, Fla., Joe Torre and Ed Kranepool hovered around first base, the position each hopes to occupy this year. A coach was hitting ground balls to them that ended up bouncing off their knees, shins, thighs and chests. Occasionally one of the grounders would stick in a glove. "First guy to catch three in a row gets the job," kidded Torre. Countered Kranepool, "My hands are O.K. It's just gettin' them to work together."
Over at the Red Sox camp in Winter Haven, Third Baseman Rico Petrocelli asked after the first practice, "When are we getting a day off?" And Utility Infielder Bob Heise said, "This is enough practice. Let's start the games."
Indeed, the games will start—exhibitions this week, the season as scheduled on April 8. And this is a welcome report after the spate of news about players unwilling to budge much in the negotiations and owners too proud to say uncle.
But somehow the good humor of the athletes and the good-to-see-you-how-was-your-winter greetings from management seemed a bit forced. Joe McDonald, general manager of the Mets, was candid. "There's a lot of uneasiness," he said. "You can't feel content after what's happened. You just don't have the same enthusiasm."
What happened was that the players and owners could not agree on what to do about the Big Bugaboo, the reserve clause. Baseball management historically has viewed the clause as giving a team the exclusive rights to a player for life. In the past two months two federal courts have ruled that a team can have the rights to a player for only one year (the so-called option year) beyond the term of his contract. The law notwithstanding, the owners persisted in arguing until recently that they must have control of players for life in order to keep salaries and expenses from going too high and to preserve competitive balance. Implicit in their position was the opinion: we are the owners, and we know what is best for baseball. The players answered by saying that slavery has a bad odor about it these days.
Early last week Commissioner Bowie Kuhn announced that if' 'sufficient progress" was made in the negotiations, he would order the camps opened. Less than 72 hours later he lamented, "We do not have a final agreement," but he nevertheless directed the owners to unlock the gates to the players, who had been anxious to play all along. Having done so, Kuhn immediately went into hiding and refused to discuss his decision. That was strange, because the players and owners generally—though certainly not unanimously—supported Kuhn.
The bottleneck in negotiations is this: courts up to but not including the Supreme Court have agreed that a player should be free to play out his contract and become a free agent. This means he would be at liberty to sell his services to anyone he chooses, just as people in other lines of work do. But the owners still want players to be reserved, somehow, to a particular team for at least eight years. And they want limits on which and how many of the 24 teams a player can offer himself to when he becomes a free agent. And they want to implement a complicated formula that would provide compensation money to the team losing the player. And they want lots of other controls.
Marvin Miller, executive director of the Players Association, fretted that for him to agree to abridge rights the players have won in court would subject both him and his union to untold liability (read that as substantial financial penalties) in the event a player sued to regain those rights. But the Players Association does agree in principle with some of the controls being sought by the owners—it offered a plan in which a player would be tied to a team for six seasons—and Miller even concedes that the liability issue might be finessed. Thus, it is the specifics of the settlement, not its essentials, that are causing trouble.
Whatever happens, no player will become a free agent before the end of the upcoming season. So with eminent logic, Kuhn told all parties to play ball now and work out a deal before October. A spokesman for a public-relations firm hired to shine up management's image in these troubled times insisted, "I can assure you that the commissioner acted on his own with no pressure from the owners or anyone else."