Once again the threat of a strike hovers over baseball, and the man who may lead the players out into the streets as he did in 1972 says the owners are making the same misjudgment they always do.
"In the 14 years I've been involved with these negotiations the owners have made one consistent mistake -- underestimating the players," Marvin Miller told reporters at Boston Red Sox headquarters here during his annual rounds of the spring training camps.
"Their view that the higher paid players say 'just me,' that they're going to go their own way and sell out the others, just isn't accurate. It assumes that the established players don't know how they got the rights they have, don't know the value of standing together, and don't care about the young players coming up. But no matter how many times we demonstrate that they're wrong, the owners keep on believing it. That's why we're facing this test now."
What Miller refers to as "this test" is a hard-line management position centered around two proposals fundamentally different from the current setup -- a structured salary scale based on years of experience and a compensation rule requiring a club signing a top free agent to hand over one of its own major league players rather than an amateur draft choice.
It does seem unthinkable that the players' union would agree to any such significant watering-down of the hard-won free agent status that is so obviously the basis of all its new- found bargaining muscle. The union negotiators also can hardly be expected to equate their membership with factory workers and agree to pay scales based primarily on seniority rather than performance -- especially with maximums far below what many of the players are already making.
If the owners are serious, therefore, it suggests that they may indeed think the time is ripe to test players solidarity -- to find out in these days of dramatic salary escalation just how many of the new "instant millionaires" are willing to give up those big paychecks for a common cause.If so, and if Miller really can keep his troops in line, and strike seems a strong possibility. At any rate, miller is taking strike authorization votes at each camp he visits, and so far the sentiment has been overwhelmingly in favor. Meanwhile, of course , negotiations continue in an effort to hammer out a new Basic Agreement to replace the old pact that expired last Dec. 31. Progress is slow, however, and one gets the impression that Miller wouldn't want to see the season start without an agreement or at least significant signs of movement toward one.
"What do we do if we play the season without a contract and after it's over management decides to change the terms?" he asked rhetorically. "Strike'em in November?"
Both sides have various offers and/or demands on the table, but the big confrontation really boils down to the two aforementioned management proposals. The one calls for a maximum salary of $40,000 for a first-year player, $53,000 for a second-year man, $90,000 for a third, etc., up to $153,000 for a six-year veteran. the other requires that a team signing a "premium" free agent (defined as one chosen by seven or more clubs in the re-entry draft) may protect 15 players on its 40-man major league roster but must then allow the team losing the free agent to choose any one of the others.
"These proposals represent an attempt to turn back the clock, to take away what the players have," said Miller, who in his role as executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association has been the man most responsible for all these gains.
"It's not really a complex situation, as when we were dealing with the reserve clause itself," he said in reply to a question. "It's simply that they want to cut the heart out of free agency and they want to establish a salary structure, each of which would save them tens of millions of dollars. I understand their motivation."
Management, of course, views the situation differently. The owners think the players, whose salaries have risen more than three times the national average in the last decade or so, are already being paid a bit too royally. They think it's time something was done to halt a spiral that has produced not only such mind-boggling contracts as Nolan Ryan's $1 million per year deal with Houston but the even more unbelievable multi-year pacts that are netting a variety of benchwarmers and second-line players sums like $200,000, $300,000, and more per annum.
The owners apparently realize that they have no one but themselves to blame. It seems, in fact, that their current negotiating position constitutes a tacit admission of this -- as well as a plea to the players' union to save them from themselves. Not surprisingly, however, neither the players nor Miller have any intention of playing the good samaritan.
"This is Alice in Wonderland," Miller said. "Management negotiators insist they must have those maximums, and even while we're talking, the Cubs offer Bruce Sutter $350,000. And look at the big settlements the Cardinals made with Garry Templeton and Keith Hernandez -- both far above the proposed maximums
"I have never before seen a situation where the negotiators say "this is a must,' while the people they represent pay no attention to the proposals. It comes very close to an unfair labor practice to insist on this as part of the package under such circumstances."
The ironic part of all this, in Miller's eyes, is that the whole idea is against the interests of the owners anyway.
"If by some miracle they could shove it down the throats of the Players Association, I don't think they could live with it," he said. "they aren't living with it now. It would be an open invitation to illegal under-the-table payments. Instead of just the few we have now, there'd be hundreds."
As for the compensation proposal, he said, "In essence they want to substitute a trade for free agency . . . (but) the players don't think you ought to be able to hold somebody hostage until you can get another body."
But Miller's main argument in these negotiations, as it has been in past ones , is that everybody is making a lot of money in baseball -- especially the owners -- and the players only want their share.
"What confuses the Players Association is that the owners are making these radical proposals at a time when the last four years have been the most prosperous in the history of the game," he said. "All the fears expressed by the owners in support of the reserve clause have turned out to be groundless. None of their predictions has come true.
"They said there'd be hundreds and hundreds of free agents, there'd be chaos, the good players would all go to the strong steams, there'd be runaway races, the fans would lose interest, TV would lose interest. But none of this has happened. On the contrary, each year has produced a record high in attendance and TV revenue. And the latest network contract is 100 percent better than the previous one.
"If the predictions had come true, if the game were being ruined and the fans turned off, they could say, 'I told you so,' and we'd understand that. But it's hard to understand their position in the context that none of this has happened -- that in fact the reverse happened."
Despite the fact that time is running short, Miller said he believes that "with some reasonableness on both sides," they could still reach a settlement.
"But if these two proposals remain on the table," he said, "I hate to be a pessimist, but I don't see any hope of an agreement."