For nearly 10 months, baseball has made no headway in its stalled labor negotiations. One reason is becoming clear: for the second year, it's the owners' strategy to prevent progress until the last minute.
Managaement has openly and unashamedly adopted a one-issue take-it-or-leave-it hard line. This tactic has, so far, proved counterproductive to both sides, as well as potentially damaging to the sport.
The owners' negotiator, Ray Grebey, has said he wants the struggle to be focused on one issue -- partial compensation. "That's the way I set it up and that's the way I want it," he says.
Now, however, concern is being voiced from several quarters about this style of battle, one which is so familiar to industry but so new to sport.
"I hope that management is really looking for a compromise and not a 'victory.' But I'm not certain that's the case. I hope that we are not about to witness another macho test of wills," said Milwaukee General Manager Harry Dalton yesterday.
"From what I hear, the Players Association is genuinely looking for a compromise, if we'll just give them something that they can accept without losing too much face," said Dalton, one of the owners' two representatives to the just-ended nine-month study committee.
"I'm worried that we'll see a repeat of last year," says one of the men closest to the negotiations. "Then, the owners made one proposals and wouldn't budge from it.They show a total distrust of (union leader) Marvin Miller. If management had put several decent proposals on the table, then let Miller choose among them, let him, in effect, deal the cards, I think we'd have had a solution long ago.
"But the owners are hung up on 'beating' Miller and the union."
"The owners make the same mistake every year," said Bob Boone, one of the players' two representatives to the study committee, yesterday. "By insisting on a proposal which is totally unacceptable to us, which is obviously a bad defeat for us if we accept it, they end up giving us unbelievable strength.
"If they'd come up with sensible proposals, maybe they could divide us. But, by backing us into a corner, they give us no choice. The owners seem too interested in having a flag of victory to run up the pole."
Bit by bit, the Players Association has been sending out its signals that it is willing to give ground in the interests of avoiding a strike.
"There are ways to compromise," said Boone.
"The owners keep claiming that their criteria for 'partial compensation' would, in the past, have affected only three or four players a year. They say that their motive isn't to drive down the salary structure of the majority of players, but just to get some equity for the franchise that loses a star free agent. We see nothing wrong with that.
"A couple of weeks ago, we said, okay, how about establishing a maximum number of 'premium' free agents every season. The association would probably be willing to go along with a system where the team losing a Dave Winfield or a Don Sutton would get the 16th-best player off the team that signed him. Sure, it might hurt the market value of a Winfield or Sutton somewhat, but not greatly. Look at the Fred Lynn case. The Angels traded decent players to get him, then gave him a big contract ($5 million for four years.)
"So, what did management answer? Lee MacPhail (AL president) said, 'No, We couldn't accept that. What if, some year, there were 30 "premium" free agents.'"
Boone raises his eyebrows eloquently. "There, you see it. They say they're only interested in equity. But what they're trying to do is drive down pay."
For months, the players have been trying to get the owners to start a serious discussion of what a "premium" free agent might really be. The owners' standards -- top 50 percent in at bats or innings pitched, plus being drafted by eight teams -- are ludicrous.
"In a sport that is laden with statistics, you'd assume that you could come up with guidlines for what a 'premium' player really is," said Boone. "On the study committee, Sal Bando and I had no trouble agreeing with Dalton and (Frank) Cashen on who those players were."
The committee thought it had done good work in beginning to discuss what sort of statistical performance might merit what sort of partial compensation. For a hypothetical example, a player with 100 RBI might be worth the 16th man as partial reembursement, while a man with 80 RBI might merit the 19th player.
When the two GMs took their work back to their bosses, they found out the truth. The owners could care less about their well-meaning little charts.
The owners say that they're concerned about "competitive balance" and "equity"for the team that loses a free agent. These are important issues. The players recongize it. As of this hour, they would accept a system that gives back a decent major league player to any team losing a Reggie Jackson, nolan Ryan or Goose Gossage. But that isn't what the owners really want; they haven't given up the notion (and who can completely blame them) that with hard-line bargaining, they can turn the financial clock back on the players.
In short, it's the owners, not the players, who are practicing brinkmanship, who are fomenting a crisis in the hopes of last-minute gains, and who want no progress until the last week of May.
In a sense, Grebey has succeeded beyond his hopes. The players no longer think of their owners as bumblers at the bargaining table. Baseball's owners are playing with the accepted rules of labor warfare. However, baseball has always tried to play by a more distinguished code than the rules of a common street fight.