Baseball: Fehr fears worst as owners meet: Ruling on liberal salary arbitration may lead to players' strike

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The Independent Online
THE NEWS was as welcome as a stink bomb at a banquet. With two of baseball's divisions set for their most exciting and competitive pennant races in years, the players' union released a memo during last month's All Star Game festivities warning its members to be ready for a strike call in September.

The reason is that crunch time in the renegotiation of baseball's collective bargaining agreement - reopened by the owners last December but deferred in the spring - is fast approaching. Such is the mistrust on both sides that Donald Fehr, the Players' Association chief, believes the owners may allow the current agreement to run out in January, and then unilaterally declare the end of the present free agency and salary arbitration systems that have helped take the average salary over the dollars 1m mark.

As Bryan Harvey, the Florida Marlins relief pitcher and union rep, put it: 'It's either going to happen in September, or it's going to happen next year. And we've got leverage in September. We don't have it next year.' That leverage comes in the form of dollars 300m of national money from the post-season games.

All of which should concentrate the minds of the owners gathering in Kohler, Wisconsin, today for three days of talks designed to thrash out a common approach to the labour question. They will vote on a proposal put before them by Richard Ravitch, the president of the major leagues' player relations committee, to introduce some form of revenue sharing (the poor Milwaukees and Montreals drawing income support from taxes on the rich Yankees and Dodgers), which would be offered to the union in return for a salary cap like that of the NBA (a fixed upper limit on the amount all teams can pay in salaries) and a reform of salary arbitration.

The biggest stumbling block is a disagreement about the nature of the game's economic problems: the union points out there has been no shortage of potential owners paying top dollar for clubs that have recently gone up for sale (Baltimore, the latest, is set to sell for a record dollars 173m), while the owners point to San Diego's recent clearance sale of top names (Gary Sheffield, Fred McGriff, Bruce Hurst) in a desperate attempt to bring the franchise within their budget.

More than anything the owners want to be rid of salary arbitration, which allows players with between three and six years' major league experience to bid one figure, the club another, with an arbitrator picking one of them, based on his view of the player's value to the team. Over the last five years, the players eligible for arbitration have seen their salaries increase on average 90 per cent each year. Only nine times have players' salaries been so reduced. The system has also led to the ludicrous situation of owners being afraid to praise their own players, lest what they say be taken down and used in evidence against them come arbitration time.

Even if the owners agree to revenue sharing this week, a deal with the union is still a long way off. But if no agreement emerges at Kohler, the odds on a September strike will shorten dramatically.

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