Major league baseball players called off the remaining spring training games today and said they will go on strike May 23 unless a new contract with team owners is agreed upon before then.
"We won't play any more spring training games, but we will continue to work out because we are serious about opening the season on time so the fans won't lose everything," said Doug DeCinces, the Baltimore Oriole third baseman and American League alternate player representative.
After a two-hour meeting of player representatives and the executive board of the Major League Players Association, the association's executive director, Marvin Miller, announced the unanimous decision to cut short spring training and set a date certain for a strike already authorized by a 967-1 vote of players.
The players' decision could lead to a repeat of the only player strike ever, the 1972 walkout that lasted 13 days and caused cancellation of 86 regular-season games.
In New York tonight, a spokesman for the owners said the training camps will remain open for players to work out, but that since the players will not play any exhibitions, they will receive no meal money, allowances or hotel costs.
Ray Grebey, director of player relations for major league baseball, also announced:
"All players will be required to be in playing condition on opening day consistent with the terms of the basic agreement. Players determined to be out of condition will not be permitted to play until they are in shape.
["It is encouraging to note that the championship season will start as scheduled. It is the continued objective of major league baseball to achieve a negotiated settlement without interruption of the championship season."]
Because 20 weeks of negotiations failed to produce a new basic agreement outlining working conditions in the major leagues, a federal mediator joined the talks last week. The mediator, Ken Moffett, said today in Washington that the players and owners will meet again in New York on Thursday.
The outlook is grim.
The refusal to play any more spring training games is the first financial blow landed by the players. The Los Angeles Dodgers and California Angels, for example, yearly play a lucrative three-game exhibition series just before opening day.
In Anaheim yesterday Gene Autry, president of the Angels, offered an apology to baseball fans when he learned the freeway series with the Dodgers would be canceled.
Autry's prepared statement said:
["I think it was a mistake to cancel the remaining spring games and take away from our great fans a chance to enjoy that series. These are the same fans who exhibited a great support of our players in the stretch drive to the club's first championship and called them back for a curtain call when they lost in the playoffs. On my part, I offer my apology for the club."]
By setting a May 22 midnight deadline, the players have tried to gain the best of three worlds.
They are physically ready to play now and might not be in June if they were to strike immediately and then be sent back to work three months later.
They will be paid for almost two months, which is as Texas Ranger Jon Matlack pointed out today, "better than being in the soup line."
Most important, according to Miller, the May 22 deadline will have "the maximum economic impact" on the 26 major league teams. April is full of open dates and rainouts, while the Memorial Day weekend, school vacations and national television games come after May 22.
"I just hope the fans realize the players are doing what is best for the game," DeCinces said. "We're not striking because we want more money. We are striking because the owners want to take away from us something we've already earned."
Troubled by the movement of players at steadily increasing salaries, the owners have asked for a new rule giving compensation in the form of a front-line player to the team losing what they call a "premium" free agent (a player chosen by at least eight teams in the reentry draft).
While the owners say such compensation is "equity" covering part of their loss, the players see the compensation as an obstacle to free movement.
The players, in fact, have asked for ever greater freedom by demanding free agent status be given to men with four years experience, not the six years experience presently required.
"There must be movement on the free agent issue," said Mike Marshall, the Minnesota Twin pitcher and player representative.
The players have suggested a change in the free agent system. They would agree to some kind of compensation, something less than a front-line player, in return for a free agent whose statistics, by some agreed upon formula, prove him to be what the players consider a "premium" free agent.
"We also have suggested a pool of money with each team contributing an equal amount, so that when a club loses a free agent that club is awarded money in compensation," Miller said today.
"But the owners wouldn't accept it because it doesn't do what they truly want to do -- they aren't interested in equity, they want to restrict salaries."
It is Miller's contention that the owners are out "to provoke a strike and present themselves as the wounded party" in order to destroy the players union.
"They have our backs to the wall and we can't go any further," DeCinces said. "We have to show our strength now."
Ominously, the owners seem to have decided the same thing.
According to Miller, the owners have a strike fund of $3.5 million and strike insurance worth upwards of $40 million. With such war funds, a 1980 season without paying salaries past May 22 could be profitable for some owners.
"The owners would love to drive down salaries and break the union," said Mark Belanger, the Oriole shortstop and player representative.
"But the only way they can do that is through the players' disunity. If that's what they want, let them try it. If all they're worried about is the strength and weaknesses of the players union, then on May 23 there will be a strike."