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Baseball players strike out over cap on salary

BARRING miraculous intervention from on high - or, even less likely, an outbreak of sweet reason by the parties to the dispute - US major league baseball players will go on strike this week, beginning what many fear could be the longest stoppage in the history of the national pastime.

Unless the players and owners reach agreement on a new 1995 labour contract, the strike will start on Friday. When it might end is anyone's guess. But the likelihood is that it will wipe out the remaining 52 days of the regular season, exceeding the 50-day 1981 dispute, hitherto the worst of baseball's seven strikes thus far.

Others fear it could be longer still. Jerry Reinsdorf, head of the Chicago White Sox and something of a moderate in the confrontation, has predicted that this year's championship play-offs and World Series will be lost, and possibly the entire 1995 season. Yet to be convincingly explained to the general public is why players earning an average dollars 1.2m ( pounds 800,000) each and even richer club owners seem determined to pull the plug on a game which is a booming dollars 2bn industry, seemingly poised to enter a new golden age.

The reasons are two. One, predictably, is money. The other is baseball's poisoned history of labour relations which has thus far made significant concession by either side impossible. The owners are demanding a salary cap; essential, they say, if widespread bankruptcies are to be avoided and the game's future to be secured. To which the players retort that a cap is an interference with the free market, and a device to divert income into the owners' pockets.

According to the owners, 19 of the 28 major league teams will lose up to dollars 12m apiece this year - a predicament they blame on soaring player salaries and a new, less lucrative network television contract. These figures, however, are disputed by the players. They point to the record dollars 173m price paid only last year for a single franchise, and argue that the owners themselves pay the salaries they so loudly complain about.

Such have been the battle lines for the last 18 months. Sporadic negotiations broke down a few weeks ago. Fearing the owners would unilaterally impose the cap during this winter's close season when the clubs had nothing to lose financially, the players called the strike for 12 August. This threatens not only the climax of the regular season but also the play-offs and World Series, which command the big television money.

Thus matters stand, with scant hope of a breakthrough. Asked if a strike was likely, the players' representative Don Fehr replied grimly yesterday: 'I think so.' Dick Ravitch, his opposite number on the owners' side, concurred. The Clinton administration is watching matters closely, but is wary of stepping into a dispute which makes the health care argument look a model of good- natured simplicity.

Mistrust between the two sides is rooted in history. Until the early Seventies players were virtual indentured labourers. Having won freedoms taken for granted in any other walk of life, they were in no mood to surrender an inch of ground - even before the owners last week withheld unilaterally a scheduled contribution to the players' pension fund. The players decided to stick to the original 12 August date, but what small hopes existed of a settlement had dwindled to next to nothing.

The real losers will be the thousands of people, from hotdog sellers to ticket clerks, who make their living from baseball - and the fans. This season was shaping up as one in which several venerable records could fall. San Diego's Tony Gwynn has been threatening to become the first man to hit .400 in a season since 1941, while Matt Williams of San Francisco is near 61 home runs in a season, a record set up 34 years ago.