Baseball strike set to run into new season

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The Independent Online
Washington - Major league baseball owners yesterday unilaterally imposed their long-expected salary cap, leaving America's strike-bound national summer game mired in an organisational and legal chaos, writes Rupert Cornwell.

The final hope of a Christmas miracle to end the most serious labour dispute in US sporting history vanished on Thursday night when the owners rejected a final set of counter-proposals from the players' union, and declared a formal impasse in negotiations for a new labour contract. In truth, however, there has never been much prospect of a settlement to a conflict which, after wiping out eight weeks of 1994 regular play and the World Series for the first time in 90 years, now threatens to ruin 1995's season.

The multi-millionaire owners insist they need a salary cap to control costs, while players, who earn an average $1.2m (£770,000), reject the notion out of hand. Despite much tactical manoeuvring, the basic position of each side has not budged for months.Briefly it seemed as if the former president Jimmy Carter, fresh from triumphs in Korea, Haiti - and maybe now Bosnia - might step in. But the idea was vetoed by the owners. "I appreciate his call, but no thanks," said Bud Selig, acting Commi ssioner and owner of the Mikwaukee Brewers.

The battle now moves to the courts and - almost certainly - Capitol Hill. The players' first step will be to seek an injunction against the salary cap, on the ground that the owners negotiated in bad faith. Next month, they are expected to go to Congressto urge an end to baseball's exemption from the US anti-trust laws, which ban anti-competitive cartels and the abuse of monopolies.

"This is not a step which could have been taken in any other industry," Don Fehr, the union chief, said of the salary cap. "This condition violates anti-trust laws." If the exemption is lifted, the entire structure of professional baseball would be transformed.

For their part, the owners vow to start the new season on schedule. They have indicated they may use replacement players - a threat that conjures up the spectacle of picket lines of major league players when spring training camps open in February. That step, too, will be fought in the courts by players, whose front thus far shows no sign of cracking.

First splits, however, are appearing among the 28 team owners. Three voted this month against a salary cap. Ontario law bars the Toronto Blue Jays, 1993 World Series winners, from employing replacement workers during a strike, while US courts have forbidden recruitment from abroad.

Adding to the misery, the American and National leagues announced this week that they plan to suspend baseball umpires involved in a contract dispute of their own. But if no games are played, who needs umpires anyway? Such is the perverse logic of baseball at Christmastide 1994.