BASEBALL / Strike threatens the game with anarchy and disaster

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The Independent Online
Major league baseball is teetering on the brink of anarchy. If owners and players cannot conjure up a compromise, the strike which began on August 12 - along the way wiping out the World Series for the first time in 90 years - will turn into a war of attrition that no one can win, poisoning the sport for years and very possibly changing its structure for ever.

What slender hopes remained of averting calamity were vested yesterday in negotiations in the New York suburb of Rye Brook. And those hopes reside less in any meeting of minds on the central issue of the owner's demand for a salary cap, than the awareness of both sides of the consequences of failure. That alone explains why, despite rejecting each other's "final" proposals, the two sides were still talking yesterday.

But time has virtually run out. Only the imploring of Bill Usery, the Government-appointed mediator, persuaded the owners earlier this month to give negotiation one last chance. But - at least as of midday yesterday - they were still vowing to hold a scheduled meeting separately today in Chicago, to formally declare an impasse in the dispute and impose the salary cap unilaterally.

At that point baseball's "doomsday scenario" would begin to roll. Both sides are dug in for a long battle, thus far fought in arcane formulae for calculating team payrolls, but whose real stake is control of the sport. The players have a $200m (£pounds 30m) strike fund. The owners have fixed their own rules to ensure that any settlement requires virtually unanimous agreement.

After declaring the salary cap, the owners will prepare for the 1995 season - for which spring training begins in just two months - regardless of the strike. They have said that they would use minor league players and, apparently, they are confident thatup to a third of major league players would break ranks and defy the strike.

The players vow that they will stand or fall together: a resolve which conjures up the likelihood of picket lines at ballparks, and calculated reprisals against "scabs", on and off the field. The owners have already opened legal proceedings for intimidation against Bobby Bonilla, the New York Mets outfielder and the union representative for his club, after he warned potential strikebreakers that, Teamster union style, they might "end up in the East River".

And, inevitably, baseball's broader battle will be waged in the courtroom. This month, the players won a first legal victory, successfully petitioning the US immigration authorities not to grant work visas to players recruited abroad. Stricter Canadian labour laws already bar the Toronto Blue Jays and the Montreal Expos from taking on any workers to replace strikers.

They will next sue the owners for negotiating in bad faith. The fight would then go to Congress, where the players would challenge baseball's anti-trust exemption, the 1922 Supreme Court ruling that allows today's 28 Major League clubs to act as a cartel.

The attitude of the new Republican majority is not clear. But repeal would bring an instant end to the strike - so much has been publicly promised by the players - and render an oligopolistic bid to impose a salary ceiling for baseball players as impossible as in any other American industry.

And if the 1995 season is imperilled, plans are waiting in the wings for a new league to challenge the American and National Leagues. As existing contracts expire, and the strike continues, there will be no shortage of star recruits on the market. Such is the chaos which looms.

America, meanwhile, watches in bemusement. Until the strike, baseball was enjoying a boom. But the owners have said that soaring wages are bringing smaller clubs to ruin. Hence their insistence that the players' share of total revenues - $1.8 bn in 1993

- must be reduced from 58 per cent to 50 per cent.

This would be achieved by limiting payrolls, which the players maintain is a de facto cap on salaries, to an average $34m per team. Clubs which exceeded their allotted ceiling would face punitive levies.