"I think most owners are in the same position I am," said Eddie Chiles, the owner of the Texas Rangers. "It's gone this far. C'est la guerre."
The 100 years war between the owners and the players has degenerated into a battle of nerves and words over an issue of freedom. But, five days before what may be the third called strike in the history of major league baseball, the owners are not fighting among themselves, at least publicly. For them, that is progress.
Nearly three weeks ago, Harry Dalton, the general manager of the Milwaukee Brewers, was fined $50,000 for remarks he made in The Washington Post about his concern that the owners were seeking a victory, not a compromise.
Two days earlier, Chiles, who has not been fined, went on the radio and said, among other things, that free-agent compensation was not necessary, that "we've got a worse problem with some of our owners than we do with Marvin Miller (the executive director of the players association)."
Now, just days before the strike deadline, Chiles says, "I don't think there are any chinks in the owners' solidarity. If there is one, I'm not one. That may come as a surprise to some. I'm supportive of the owners' position 100 percent."
John McMullen, owner of the Houston Astros, who was one of several owners instrumental in achieving last May's compromise settlement, said, "There was something to work with last year. There's nothing to work with this time. There's one issue on the table . . .I just feel that what the owners are trying to do is absolutely correct. I'm supportive of what they are trying to do."
The owners have managed a show of solidarity and strength -- and in labor negotiations a show can be all -- that may be a key to what happens in the next five days. There are those in baseball circles who believe that the owners' chief negotiator, Ray Grebey, and the players relations committee have managed to take control of the situation in a way they did not last year, and that the owners who were not particularly supportive of Grebey and Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, and still aren't, have resolved to keep their mouths shut, and wait to see who wins.
What the owners hope to win is a form of free-agent compensation that would award the club losing the player with another major league player. Currently, the only form of compensation is a pick in the amateur draft. After all the money they spend harvesting a major leaguer, the owners do not think that is enough of a return on their investment.
They call it an equity issue. "What we have said is that we want improved equity, balance that reflects difference in the level of talent in the free agency as observed over the last three years," said Grebey. "A club that loses a premier free agent ought to get an improvement in compensation, something more than the right to sign an amateur athlete. We think that is fair and not unreasonable."
The owners say the compensation proposal that was on the table last year, when they agreed to defer the issue this year, would affect only three to five players a year. Why, then, they ask, should there be a strike? What's the big deal? (Big deal? Ask the 295 major leaguers who could become eligible for free agency over the next three years).
What's more, the owners say, Tuesday they offered modifications to that proposal, offering to exempt 14-year veterans from compensation and to allow free agents to negotiate with more than 13 clubs.
They also proposed using performance statistics to rank free agents instead of relying simply on numbers of appearances. Players would be divided by position and ranked according to five factors: plate appearances, batting average, on-base percentage, home runs and runs batted in. Infielders and catchers would also be evaluated by fielding statistics. Pitchers would be ranked by innings pitched, victories, won-lost percentage, saves, ERA and strikeouts.
The players responded that this "take it or leave it" proposal is unsatisfactory because it still means that 50 percent of the free agents would command compensation. Since there is no minimum cut-off point, they say, a player like Angel Brian Downing, who only played in 30 games last year, would be ranked 10th among catchers because of his high batting average and slugging percentage.
Grebey, who insisted it was not a "take it or leave it" proposal, was asked if there were other alternatives forthcoming from the owners. "You never want to say no," he said. "But what's in the contract is the result of a year of negotiation. I don't think it's very likely at this late hour that alternatives will be found that will meet the objectives of the 26 clubs."
The problem, he added Thursday, "is that the players association's announced goal is a compensation plan which would not impact on even a single player."
The problem, Miller says, is that the owners want a compensation plan that goes beyond their stated objective of replacing a premier free agent, with the unstated intent of driving down player salaries across the board and limiting the players' bargaining power.
The owners' position at the negotiating table consistently has been that neither player salaries, nor the fiscal health of the national pastime, are at issue.
The players association points to the financial tale of woe, expressed in numerous statements by owners away from the bargaining table, as evidence that the real issue in this strike is financial.
"What the owners are trying to do makes sense," said McMullen. "Everything's way out of line. The salaries are preposterous . . . It's like the federal government; you have to cut back to correct some of the ills in the system."
Statements like that prompted the players to file an unfair labor practice charge against the owners with the National Labor Relations Board, contending that the owners have not been honest in setting forth their concerns at the bargaining table. The players have requested "an order compelling the owners to furnish financial information concerning the clubs' financial health," as well as an extension of the strike deadline, should the information be provided, to give the players time to respond to it.
Miller has said that if the clubs were able to show financial need, the players would then reassess their position.
But, even if the NLRB rules against the players, other charges can be expected, said Don Fehr, the general counsel for the players association.
One possibility is a charge of surface bargaining, which alleges that a party has been going through the motions of negotiation without good faith.
When a strike was averted last spring, the players and owners signed an agreement that provided for a joint study committee to study the compensation issue and attempt to reach a compromise. In the event there was no compromise, the owners were given the right to unilaterally adopt the last compensation proposal on the table (which they did on Feb. 19) and the players were given the right to reopen the bargaining agreement and to strike on May 29 before the proposal would go into effect. This does not mean, the players say, that they ever agreed to compensation or that it was a part of the agreement.
In August, long before it was clear that the joint study committee would come to naught, the owners purchased $50 million in strike insurance, which Grebey says takes effect after a 12-day deductible period, and another $10 million or so to cover the deductible period.
"People ask us how we view what has happened, did they ever intend to bargain in good faith?" said Fehr. "You have to measure what they said against what they did. They bought strike insurance well in advance of the time when we would have to say we were going to strike. They never made a proposal. (National League President Lee) MacPhail goes out and says, 'We have compensation. They'll have to strike to get it out.'
"What conclusion do I draw? They never had any intention of bargaining in good faith."
"That," said Grebey, "is an incorrect conclusion. There has never been an absence of bargaining."
Jerry Reinsdorf, owner of the Chicago White Sox, said, "Miller wants to get into the books and records. I think he wants to become a partner. He's actually asking to be enjoined from striking."
Reinsdorf is not optimistic about the possibility of a settlement, because he says he doesn't think Miller wants one.
Chile isn't optimistic, either.
"Sad? Yes, it is. Any time a strike negotiation comes down to the deadline and everything is in a lock position, it's sad . . .
"But," he added, "the cards are on the table. You've got to play out the hand."