After almost nine months of pregnant pause, baseball's labor pains have begun again.
Both management and union are ready to entrench along the same battle lines occupied last spring when they fought to mutual exhaustion over the sport's contentious new Alsace-Lorraine: the murky issue of partial compensation.
The first bombardment of this year's battle have been launched. The Five Years War (and counting) is on again.
Theoretically, the two sides are to continue their talks, studies and committee meetings until Feb. 15 before they come out kicking and gouging. However, it is now clear that not an iota of progress has been made since last May 23, when the owners acquiesced at the 11th hour and allowed the hated free agent system to remain in place for another costly year.
"I see no possibility of a settlement at this time over the issue on the table -- partial compensation," Ray Grebey, the owners' negotiator, said yesterday. "It's time to implement our (compensation) system or walk away from it. We did not put it there last year so we could set it aside now.
"The players try to treat our proposal as frivolous. They might as well say, 'Take your plan, wrap it in tinfoil and chuck it in the garbage.'
"Well, partial compensation is not like bargaining over a pension fund," said Grebey. "You can't nickel and dime your way to a middle ground on this one. It's a whole new concept and you've either got it or you don't. Whatever contract we end up with this year will be locked in place until '84."
"The owners' position seems to have redoubled in its rigidity since last year," said Players Association leader Marvin Miller yesterday. "At every session for months they've said the same thing: 'Well, what have you got to say?' They act as though we have some long laundry list of demands that we need to justify. The players aren't asking for anything. The owners simply want to turn back the clock.
"Within one hour of our settlement last May, Grebey was saying, 'It's all over . . . Partial compensation is in place.' That's just rhetoric, but its rhetoric that shows bad faith in bargaining. The owners have the gun. They can institute their compensation plan (on Feb. 20), but we haven't given up anything. We can still fire back if we have to (with a strike).
"Part of the problem is that Grebey is a very rigid man. He's fallen into the trap of adopting the posture of a tough guy. The owner's tone of intransigence has clearly gotten sharper with his coming. He has always operated from the traditional assumption that the union is the initiating party, the one making the demands. But now, it's the owners who are the moving party, the ones demanding change. And it looks like he doesn't know a second way of doing things."
Has anything changed from a year ago, when both sides took a nose count on their forces, amassed their muscle, then glared at each other with nary a quiver of movement until the last few days before the final strike deadline?
"One change may be that the owners have managed to get $35 million in strike insurance from people who have no idea what they have insured," claims Miller. "Their underwriters -- Lloyd's of London, dealing through the Bahamas -- had the impression that they were working with a more traditional labor-management situation. That's to say, one where the spark that starts the strike comes from the union. But here it's management that may decide that it's willing to precipitate a strike in hopes of getting a change it wants.
"For an analogy, let's say you want to punch somebody, but you're concerned about the damages. So, you find a way to insure yourself against the consequences. In effect, you've gotten yourself a free punch.
"To an extent . . . the owners have managed to set themselves up to take a free punch at our union. Now I find it easier to understand why Lloyd's, which is really a consortium of companies, has been so devastated in recent years by paying off on claims they never should have insured. They're a sort of gigantic oddsmaker more than an insurance company. They don't know enough about American baseball to realize that the owners, even if they lost money on a strike, might consider it a gain in the long run if they could force partial compensation into the rules and soften the financial blow through insurance."
Miller admits that $35 million, divided among 26 teams, would do little to soften the damage of a long strike. "They'd lose more money just from the TV revenue of the All-Star game and World Series than they'd get back in insurance," he says.
Grebey, for his part, calls baseball's strike insurance "just good business planning. We haven't deceived anyone. Our carriers (Lloyd's) don't have a bunch of freshman lawyers handling this."
He also adds, just to stir the pot, that the owners have "a substantial form of self insurance . . . a fund created through this office that amounts to millions of dollars. Handling all that money, I sometimes find myself in the brokerage business."
"The owners' so-called war chest -- they've been setting aside two percent of the gate -- is almost totally drained by paying their insurance premiums," counters Miller. "I would think it would eat it up totally."
In general, the coming showdown is likely to be a replay of last year's. Neither side has any significant new ideas on the intricacies of partial compensation. Instead, each is focusing its efforts on a bluff-and-bluster battle of rhetoric.
As for partial compensation itself, it's exactly where it was last May 23 -- nowhere. The owners still demand that the team which loses a "premium free agent" should be partially compensated with the 16th-best player off the club that gobbles up its player. The owners' standard for a "premium" player is still vague -- top 50 percent of all players in at bats or innings, and being drafted by eight teams.
"We can't even get them to make a substantive definition of what they mean by 'premium,'" says Miller. "I thought that would be the one contribution of the Study Committee, but now the owners have even backed down from that. They have never really wanted to limit compensation to just the true premium players. If you offered it to them, they wouldn't take it because it wouldn't do enough for them."
The Grapefruit League season is still a month away, but the tenor of the sport's spring has already been set. After a nine-month smokescreen of public relations to convince fans that voices of reason were negotiating in back rooms, the old game has shown its all-too-familiar face -- with age-old animosities and swollen egos butting in.
The last thing baseball needed was a replay of the boring labor ugliness of a year ago. But that's what it's got. In spades.