It could not have been any gloomier outside on the sidewalks of New York today than it was inside at the stalled talks between the Major League Players Association and the baseball team owners. Representatives of the players and the owners met with federal mediators for three hours in an effort to avert a Friday strike but reported that no progress had been made on free-agent compensation, the issue that has brought negotiations to the top of the ninth inning.
Asked if there had been any movement today, Don Fehr, legal counsel for the players association, said, "Only from room to room."
Federal mediator Kenneth Moffett, who scheduled another session for Thursday morning at 10 o'clock, said, "Unless there is a complete change of heart overnight on the part of either of the parties, we're heading pell-mell toward a baseball strike."
Asked if he thought Thursday's meeting offered a chance of averting a strike, Marvin Miller the executive director of the players association, replied: "No."
Then he paused and added, "A chance? I guess there's always a chance."
But Miller said, "Telegrams have already gone out to the 26 player representatives that if there is no agreement prior to May 23, the strike will begin with the games scheduled on May 23."
(Since Miller emphasized the strike would begin with games of Friday, United Press International questioned whether that meant a change of deadline. Miller replied, "I don't know where you guys got the notion that the deadline was midnight Thursday."
(UPI took that as meaning "it was conceivable the talks could continue through Friday morning." But others at the negotiations understood Miller to mean merely that players would not walk out on Thursday night games in progress should they run late.
(The first game affected Friday would be Los Angeles at Chicago in the National League, due for a 2:30 p.m. EDT start.)
Miller was sending out messages to the players but he brought another one to the session.
In an effort to resolve some of the subsidiary issues in the negotiations, including the salary scale for the minimum contract and the amount of money the owners must contribute to the pension fund, the players submitted a series of revised proposals. They "represented a downward revision of some proposals and an elimination of certain other proposals," Miller said. o
"This is the fourth of fifth time we have done it."
Miller said the players had reiterated their proposal of last Thursday that negotiators try to agree on areas "where the heat is not that great and put the compensation issue to a joint study committee" in 1980-81. Miller indicated that the players were flexible on the length of the study, composition of the committee and the nature of the report.
"It's important that you understand one thing about compensation," he said. "The players have proposals and they have needs. Mr. Grebey has made it clear it will not budge on any of those. We're conscious of the sensitivity of those issues. And we said we will review it but that is not enough."
Ray Grebey, chief negotiator for the owners, said, "The players did propose to us what they considered to be the basis of a settlement. There was one obvious omission. It did not deal with the player-selection right of the 26 clubs, which is also known as compensation."
"It fails to deal with the critical issue of compensation," he added.
"It is not enough movement for a settlement."
Later, when Miller stepped to the podium at a jammed press conference at the Doral Inn Hotel, he said, "I happened to overhear Mr. Grebey say there was nothing new. That was an interesting way of characterizing what we did. Technically, it was the truth, in that we did not introduce new issues. But to lead you to believe we did not change our proposals is misleading because we did.
"We moved in our proposal," Miller said. "I loved the way he (Grebey) tried to obscure it."
According to Fehr, the players' new proposal "dropped the pension proposal down to $15 1/2 million from $16 1/2 million."
The owners have offered $14.4 million, a 70 percent increase.
Fehr said the players also had dropped their proposal for a minimum salary to $30,000 instead of $35,000 for 1980, with a $2,500 increment for each of the next three years."
The owners have offered $27,500 as the minimum salary for 1980, with a $2,500 increment for each of the next three years.
According to Fehr, the players additionally "modified salary-arbitration procedures downward" and made "all sorts of suggestions on contract language."
But, he said, "They treated it as a bargaining proposal instead of a basis for settlement."
This may well be a case of too little too late.
"If this had been a session 30 days before the deadline, you'd have to say this was progress," remarked David Vaughn, general counsel to the Federal Mediation Service. "But 30 hours before the deadline, it wasn't very productive."
The owners maintained that, based on their proposals, including a promise of retroactivity to the beginning of this season and another promise not to declare an impasse in negotiations before the beginning of next season, there is no need for a strike.
"We do not have 30 hours," Grebey said. "We have an entire season. If they want to lay ball, they can."
Asked what he anticipated the losses to the owners would be in the event of a strike, Grebey said "substantial."
But he added, "The owners have taken care to plan for an interruption of the season. They have managed their cash flow, limited their expenditures, created a financial-assistance fund and obtained some insurance."
But no insurance can protect them against the loss of the goodwill of the 43,550,398 fans who attended games last year. Two of them, Freddy, 14, and Lenny Berger, 16, of Baltimore, lingerred by the elevator along with perhaps 50 reporters. The Bergers were waiting for Enos Cabell of the Houston Astros, one of two players attending today's talks.
When Grebey returned from a 1 1/2-hour caucus with the owners' negotiating committee at 4:20, he asked the Bergers if they would like Cabell's autograph. ythe boys did not bother to tell him that they knew Cabell and had many of his autographs. When reporters asked if they would be interested in Grebey's autograph, they said no and asked who he was.
Freddy said he thought the strike "dumb."
"Those guys are making too much money," he said. "Only about a quarter want to go on strike. The ones who are rich want to get richer.
His older brother disagreed. "From what I understand, the owners are getting too much of the money," he said.