After the owners withdrew their original proposal, Orza said, "They wasted four months of negotiations. They made proposals with the idea that the players would reject them. Now the season is in jeopardy." Fehr disgustedly shook his head and said, "We didn't start the kind of negotiations that could lead to an agreement until this week."
So the two sides were at last down to the one issue that had to be addressed, the issue that should have been attacked in November, the issue on which each side has refused to budge: salary arbitration eligibility. The arbitration system, which was adopted in 1974, originally allowed players with two to six years of major league experience to have their salaries determined by an impartial arbitrator. But in 1985, when the owners cried poverty—which the union has established was a false claim—the players made a concession, raising salary arbitration eligibility from two years to three. Arbitration has probably become a more important factor in increasing players' salaries than free agency, and the owners are afraid that if arbitration is expanded to include two-year players again, they will have lost another measure of control over expenditures.
But Fehr is on a mission to get that year back, claiming that the owners' income projections prepared for the '85 negotiations have been exceeded by at least $500 million in each of the last four years and that the players have not shared commensurately in that bounty. Teams are all "in the deep, deep, deep black now," says Orza. "No charcoal gray."
The players also want the minimum salary hiked from $68,000 to $112,500, rosters restored from 24 to 25 players and pension benefits increased. All this can be worked out—"The offer we now have on the table is a very fair one," said Selig on Monday—but arbitration eligibility remains a hurdle. Orza said he has been told that the owners won't ratify a contract if arbitration is moved back to two years. "We don't have room in that area," said O'Connor. Some players and agents have said privately that getting the year back is not critical to them, as long as the other elements can be resolved to their satisfaction. But at the bargaining table the union has shown no proclivity to compromise on the issue. "It's a proverbial stone wall," said Fehr. On Monday, Vincent said, "It's tragic to the point of absurdity."
Fehr left New York on Monday for a meeting of the Players Association executive board in Phoenix and indicated that further talks with the owners would be delayed. Fehr said that if the lockout lasts until April 15, the date when players would receive their first paychecks, he would consider legal action. "We have substantial grounds to challenge every single lockout clause," he said.
There's plenty of time between now and April 15, but already Dodger pitcher Orel Hershiser has said a settlement might come too late for him to get in shape to start on Opening Day, scheduled for April 2. Players were working out last week at high schools, in municipal parks and in backyards, but each day without an agreement further threatens the season. Where's Kissinger when you really need him?