Issues behind baseball dispute

Even for a veteran umpire, it would be a tough call -- sorting out the rights and wrongs in the down-to-the-wire baseball dispute. How could the players and team owners have negotiated for almost nine months only to wind up racing the clock Tuesday in a desperate, day-long effort to avert the national pastime's second strike in four years? Just what are the real issues here?

One side consists of young men making an average annual salary of $350,000 for playing a summer game.

The other side is made up of multimillionaires, who are joined by battalions of tax lawyers and accountants. There are no clear ``villains.''

According to most recent polls, the general public perceives the players as the ones wearing the black hats this time around. It's difficult, after all, for the man-in-the-street to understand why such highly paid workers would walk off their jobs. How can they be dissatisfied with such a good deal? How much more do they want?

It's human nature to think this way, of course, and the owners are only too happy to help foster such ideas. In the contract negotiations, which began last November and were still going on at press time Tuesday with the Aug. 6 strike deadline upon us, management repeatedly emphasized what it called the game's ``dire financial straits.'' Naturally the owners laid most of the blame for this situation on the rapid escalation of player salaries over the past decade.

But few people at this point seriously believe the owners' perennial lament that they are losing money -- especially when every time a franchise goes up for sale, prospective buyers fall all over themselves for the privilege of shelling out $40 million or $50 million to acquire such a supposedly unattractive investment. Obviously the huge ``losses'' we keep hearing about exist only in the fertile imaginations of the tax lawyers and accountants.

And in any case, are today's players really overpaid? All you have to do is look at the revenue their efforts generate and the question answers itself. The players, after all, are the ones who create this revenue. Nobody has bought a ticket yet to watch George Steinbrenner building his ships or Ted Turner trying to buy CBS. So why shouldn't the people who bring the money in get the lion's share of the profits?

They should, of course, and throughout the rest of the entertainment industry they do. You don't see Bruce Springsteen turning over the fruits of his efforts to the promoters -- and ditto for Robert Redford, Johnny Carson, or any top star of the stage, screen, or TV. In fact by these standards, even the highest baseball salaries look like coolie wages. And in case anyone hasn't noticed, baseball is part of the entertainment business. So what is all the fuss about?

The owners, though, cherish memories of a happier (for them) time when ballplayers didn't have the same sort of leverage their fellow entertainers in other fields did. Free agency changed all that about a decade ago, however, and since then player salaries have been determined on the open market.

The current dispute is not technically about any of this. But more and more as the deadline approached, it became apparent that despite all the well-publicized arguments about whether baseball was making or losing money and the question of how much the owners should contribute to the players' pension fund, the real issue -- just as it was the last time -- is management's attempt to limit the effect free agency can have on the game's salary structure.

``This is 1981 all over again,'' said Donald Fehr, executive director of the Players Association, referring to the 50-day strike four years ago over the issue of free agent compensation. ``The issues that we thought had been over money are actually about denying players their rights of free agency and to have their salaries determined in a free market.''

Fehr called it ``forcing the players out by asking them to straighten out the owners' finances,'' and indicated that the owners were negotiating in a way that made it appear they wanted a strike.

The owners, of course, see it the other way -- with the players the greedy ones who want to have their cake and eat it too in terms of salaries and benefits. They contend that things like the pension system and arbitration, which were created in a different era, should be adjusted now in view of the drastically changed salary structure which has come about as a result of free agency.

Midway in this year's discussions the owners for the first time ever opened their books. But while their financial experts said the figures supported the contention that the game was in financial trouble, and showed losses estimated at anywhere between $27 and $43 million, the players' accountants interpreted the same figures as showing a profit of at least $9 million.

Then came the question of management contributions to the pension fund, which in the past has been one-third of the TV revenue. Under the old contract this was $15.5 million, and with a new $180 million TV deal the players sought $60 million as their ``traditional'' share. But the owners, reluctant to increase their contribution so much, insisted that there was never any formal agreement for such a one-third figure.

In the end, however, the issue that created the biggest gap turned out to be the owners' proposal to change the salary arbitration process by extending the time of service needed to file for arbitration from two to three years and by limiting any arbitrator's award to double a player's current salary.

According to Mr. Fehr, this would, in effect, put a cap on the salaries of all players except those eligible for free agency, ``and that represents the vast majority of our members.''

In the final days before the strike deadline, the players offered to reduce their pension contribution demand from $60 million to $40 million on condition that (a) the salary arbitration process remain essentially the same and (b) the owners take the $120 million in savings they would reap during the life of the six-year TV deal and distribute it to teams that are having financial troubles.

Management, however, rejected this proposal out of hand, indicating that it felt the increase in the pension contribution was still exorbitant, and that in any case the players had no business telling the owners how to distribute their money.

``This was not a constructive proposal,'' said chief management negotiator Lee MacPhail. ``Instead it is an alarmingly destructive one, and one that obviously cannot be accepted by the clubs.''

An indication of the way things were going came when the parties didn't even get together for any formal negotiating sessions Monday or Tuesday, holding just ``informal meetings'' both days. However the latter, called at the urging of Commissioner Peter Ueberroth, turned into a serious bargaining session after all as the two sides raced the clock in hopes of reaching agreement. 30{et

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