'Safe,' the umpire called, as baseball puts surprise finish to strike talks

For the time being, anyhow, baseball has ordered its labor-management problems to the showers and an unburdened game back on the diamond. In fact, a seemingly unavoidable player strike was averted at the last minute , preventing the "national pastime" from skipping a beat or even a ground ball.

After six months of negotiations, in which the players and club owners were unable to resolve their differences on a new contract agreement, talks reached a crisis stage late last week. Unless things were ironed out by Thursday midnight , the players were to pick up their bats and go home.

Thus it was that Ray Grebey, the owners' negotiator, and Marvin Miller, the players' labor leader, came together in New York for a high noon-like showdown to determine the game's immediate future.

The stalemate was eventually broken sometime between the late, late show and Good Morning America on Friday, a surprise ending that had just about everybody waking up a bit bewildered. It also found quite a few players scurrying to catch planes for games they hadn't expected to play.

Neither side got exactly what it wanted, but in the final anaylsis the players made several gains in pension and salary areas while forcing the owners to back down from their hard line on the compensation issue, all along the major stumbling block in the negotiations.

Under the old basic agreement, which expired before the current season, a team that signed a free agent had to compensate the signee's previous club with a future draft choice. The owners wanted the compensation increased to an active player off the signing team's roster.

The effect of such a change would be to rein in the no-holds-barred bidding on free agents that's caused salaries to jump right out of the ballpark. Some journeyman players even make $100,000, once a magical figure.

The players, of course, were not about to let the owners have their way on the compensation issue. Essentially, the owners' efforts to up free agent compensation is an attempt to restrain themselves from offering outrageous salaries to unsigned players.

A compensation rule of the type of owners wanted no doubt would inhibit player movement, a freedom the Major League Players' Association has fought hard for. Why? Because a team would think twice about losing a player left "unprotected" on its roster as payment for signing a free agent.

Proof of this has come in the National Football League, where few free agents switch clubs as a consequence of a player-for-player compensation arrangement watched over by the commissioner.

Instead of holding firm on their compensation stand, the baseball owners eventually compromised agreeing to the issue slide while a special four-man committee studies the situation. The season will be played without interruption and the question hopefully settled by mid-February of next year.

If no agreement is reached, the owners can put their beefed-up compensation proposals into effect. The players, meanwhile, will retain the trump card they utilized this season, which is the right to strike.

What all this means is that baseball is hardly out of the woods on the labor-management front. Its toughest bargaining issue has not yet been ironed out, and Miller has vowed to postpone his scheduled retirement next year if the compensation question remains unresolved.

Beyond this gray in the latest four-year basic agreement, the players were able to win what they wanted.

In the salary department, they succeeded in raising the minimum from $21,000 to $30,000 during the contract's first year, then to $32,500, $33,500, and $35, 000 thereafter.

In the pension area, the owners agreed to increase their annual contribution to the players' fund from $8.3 million to $15.5 million. The total contribution , therefore, for the length of the contract is $62 million, or a third of the owners' national TV revenues. This one-third formula was something management had hoped to abandon.

The owners reportedly were well prepared for the strike, having put together a strike fund out of gate receipts last year and arrange for strike insurance through Lloyd's of London. The players were ready to counter, though, by ending their walkout after 10 days, thereby undermining the owners' ability to collect any insurance, which only would have been available 15 days into a strike.

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