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"For some time now, it's been obvious that Ray Grebey and [Commissioner] Bowie Kuhn have been intent on provoking a strike," Miller said last month. "Both of them have told the owners, 'We got compensation last year.' Now they've either got to settle and get egg on their faces or bull it out, hoping to starve out the players and get compensation."
The four proposals Miller presented this spring each addressed, however modestly, a concern of management's, but they were rejected with little discussion. Did the owners want a monetary award for clubs losing free agents, as they had proposed in 1976? Miller had an idea for one. Were clubs concerned about losing their players to free agency? The rules governing trades of players in the last year of their contracts could be liberalized. In a third proposal, Miller outlined criteria that would classify up to 5% of all players as ranking free agents, and implied he could go higher. Finally, stressing his "flexibility," Miller broached the idea of a pool in which each club would make available four players from its 40-man roster who could be used as compensation for teams losing free agents. The players seemed to be moving slowly toward meeting Grebey's objectives: "increased equity, a professional ballplayer" as compensation. No, no, no and no, said the owners. "They want us to keep proposing until we hit Bingo," said Miller bleakly.
The Players Association claimed an unfair labor practice in that the clubs wouldn't open their books in support of a contention that salaries were putting them in a bind. Ultimately, counsel for the NLRB sought the injunction that Judge Werker denied last week. Had he granted it, a strike would have been postponed for a year. "It's important that we resolve compensation now," said Grebey. The owners may not have wanted a strike, but they had their reasons to provoke it, as surely as they prepared for it and argued against the injunction that would at least have delayed it. As Grebey himself said, the companies that sold the owners $50 million worth of strike insurance this year might get cold feet in 1982. Further, the owners don't want November's reentry draft conducted without significant compensation. Finally, some owners melodramatically cast the strike as the ultimate showdown with Miller (who is expected to retire this year) for "control of the game." So they pushed the players to the brink—and beyond.
The strike should be every bit as bizarre as the events that preceded it. For one thing, some people will profit despite it. Outfielder Mitchell Page, demoted last week from Oakland to Tacoma, will collect a major league salary in the minors. And the umpires get 45 days' pay.
The fans, meanwhile, were getting shut out from major league baseball—and they didn't like it. A phone-in poll conducted by NBC last weekend showed that 53% of the 162,802 respondents favored the owners. "Those ballplayers better talk to some auto workers and steelworkers," Martha Cummings wrote in The Houston Post. "Good Japanese ballplayers can be imported, too."
But surely some players deserve sympathy. Twins rookie Pitcher Brad Havens was promoted from Orlando just before the strike. If he'd stayed there, he would be making $1,700 a month. Now he's getting zip. "I'd rather be in the big leagues on strike," he said bravely.
The average salary in major league baseball today is about $175,000 a year. It may strain credulity to suggest that some players now face financial hardship, but it may also be true. "Some of these guys will be broke in a month," said Giants Manager Frank Robinson. The lowest-paid Ranger, Dan Duran, who makes the major league minimum of $32,500, is dropping $181 a day (based on a 180-day season); the highest-paid player in baseball, the Yankees' Dave Winfield ($1,400,000), a cool $7,777. "I'll try to make ends meet," he says.
Philosophically, the players and owners are light-years apart. Legally, strike-wrought complications could stall a settlement for weeks. And financially, the owners seemed to be hunkered down for a long delay. After a 13-day, 152-game deductible period expires on June 24, their $50 million in strike insurance will pay them $100,000 a game through 500 games—until Aug. 8. They also have $15 million worth of mutual assistance funds they've been stockpiling for two years.
Does this sound like a one-sided battle? Not necessarily. The owners will save on salaries and other expenses, but they'll lose a considerable amount of game income: an average of almost $5 per ticket, a few bucks per lost customer for concessions and, barring substitute arrangements, pro-rated portions of local TV and radio income (an average of $1.86 million per team for 1981) and the national TV package ($1.6 million per team).
"In a short strike, we'll lose money," says California Executive Vice-President Buzzie Bavasi. "But if the rest of the season is out, what with insurance and no costs, we'd break even—maybe even make a few bucks."