Today, just for once, and just for the heck of it, let's keep it simple.
What is the players' position in the current baseball labor struggle?
What, in broad terms, do they want?
What, in specific terms, are they willing to give at the bargaining table?
What, from their point of view, will it take to avoid a strike on Friday?
The first, and most important, point of order all players stress is: "We don't want anything."
The free-agency system, which the players and owners agreed to on a four-year trial basis in the negotiations of 1976, suits the players fine. They think free agency is a primary cause of the game's reinvigorated health.
They believe that the system during the past five years has been beneficial to both sides. Obviously, since player salaries now average $175,000 a man, it has been good for athletes.
However, when owners squeal that they'll go bankrupt, players answer, in effect, "The fault, dear owners, lies not in your stars but in yourselves."
In other words, owners get "auction fever" and pay more for players than they're worth. This, players argue, is neither their fault nor their concern. t
Players feel they should not be punished because the owners are extravagant.
If the bosses cannot manage their own house, should the players lose money as a result? If the owners cannot control themselves and, instead, insist on bidding suicidally, does that mean labor gains should be rolled back and the ground rules changed?
That's how the players see the past five years, and that's why, over the past two years of difficult labor negotiations, they've been so unified.
"Any time (union leader) Marvin Miller whispers, 'Strike,'" says New York Yankee player representative Rudy May, "every major league player is going to scream it at the top of his voice.
"Man, don't the owners know that there's going to be a whole generation of ballplayers' sons who grow up with the middle name Marvin? After all that this man has done for us, who's going to be ungrateful enough not to lose some paychecks if we have to?
"The owners think that our salaries will make us selfish. Don't they understand that this is the first labor generation in baseball? The majority of guys on every team remembers how it used to be. Just seven years ago, having a BIG season got you a $5,000 raise . . . if you fought real hard.
"The owners don't know what solidarity is until they watch this union in action."
Despite all this, it is the union which, at every juncture in recent years, has given ground.
"We've always been the ones who have given," says Baltimore player rep Mark Belanger. "It drives me crazy that average people always says, 'You greedy players are always taking.' That shows how completely in the dark they are.
"In 1975, a federal arbitrator struck down the reserve clause. The players came forward and said. 'This could be chaos. We don't want to hurt the game. Let's work out a fair system.' So, we voluntarily gave them the rule that a player is tied to the team that first signs him for his first six years in the majors. That means the average player is bound to one club for the first nine to 10 years of his career (counting minor league service).
That was a huge concession. But now, five years later, nobody remembers it. Now it's us who are being asked to give more."
There is only one issue here: partial compensation.
In every public forum, the owners have maintained that certain "premier" players are of such great value to a franchise that, when they are lost, it's essential to the stability of baseball that the club be compensated "partially" by reimbursement in the form of a major league player.
"Premier" is the owners' choice of word, one which they must now regret, since the dictionary says it means "first in position, rank or importance."
The players assume what the owners say they want and what their proposal would really cause are totally different.
To point this out, the players have accepted what the owners claim they want. This is the most telling development of the last year.
"If the owners want compensation for superstars, we're perfectly willing to talk, and have been for nearly a year," says Doug DeCinces, American League player representative. "They rattle off the list of names of players from past drafts that they call premier' and we say, 'Great list.' We agree with every one of those names. Now, let's set up some statistical criterion which would include players of that caliber, but rule out all lesser players. That should be easy.
"That's when they show their true intentions," says DeCinces. "Their state guidelines would inlcude 50 percent of all players as premier. In other words, the 325th-best player in baseball is 'premier' and is worth a major leaguer as "compensation.' Obviously, they're trying to undo everything we've gained."
"First," says Belanger, "you must define what you mean by 'premier.'
"Then, once you have a meaningful statistical profile of the sort of player you're talking about, then you decide: how much compensation is such a player worth? How partial is partial? That's the big, tough question.
"But we've never even gotten to the second issue because the owners won't address themselves to the first."
Finally, last Tuesday, management moved. Perhaps in response to the players' pending charges of unfair labor practices before the NLRB, perhaps to assuage moderate, compromise-minded owners, or perhaps because they intended to do it at the last minute all along, the owners finally have agreed to broaden the statistical criteria for defining 'premier.'
This brings us to the present moment, and to the nub of the crisis.
The optimistic interpretation of events is that both labor and management have stopped posturing over smoky philosophical issues and have reached a point where all that remains is the inevitable hard bargaining over particulars, i.e. who gets how much of the pie.
That's to say, within the last couple of months the players have made it clear that the words "partial compensation" are not verboten to them (as they vowed for a year), and that they now are willing to accept some such system, so long as it affects only the true superstars of the sport and does not seriously jeopardize the bargaining power of the rank and file.
Also, within the past few days, the owners have given the first hint that they may be willing to whittle down the number of compensation players and start talking in specifics, not generalities.
"Even if that's so," said Belanger, "at the pace we're going we won't have any final deal worked out until Thanksgiving. I sometimes wonder if management has any idea what it's doing. It's like an animal with several heads. You never know which one you're talking to. God, I've been to so many useless meetings that it really disturbs me. I keep thinking, 'Does life really have to be this hard? Where's the common sense? Where's the good will?' The players walk out of meetings shaking their heads, saying, 'Are they that dumb, that confused, or is this just all strategy?'"
The answer is coming soon.
The bleak view among many players is that baseball's owners have armed themselves so well with strike insurance and their own accumulated bile after years of labor setbacks that they have decided flatly to precipitate a strike, then, after it has begun, gauge the strength of the union and fune-tune their contract demands accordingly.
One source at the players' table gives this dismal scenario as one possibility: "One interpretation for the silence of the moderate owners, besides the gag rule and fines, is that they are giving Ray Grebey and Bowie Kuhn enough rope in hopes that they'll both hang themselves and they'll be rid of them both for good. The compromise owners who worked for the settlement a year ago, like (George) Steinbrenner and (Edward Bennett) Williams, have said very little this time. It's like they're supporting the Grebey-Kuhn position publicly, but, after the strike is over and everybody counts up their losses, there'll be a bloody day of accounting and a couple of jobs may open up. Unfortunately, that damages everybody."
The distance between the players, who are united for a strike if they must face one, and the owners, some of whom may actually want a strike for its long-range effect in reshaping the game, is large and the time for closing it is short.
The simplest measure of that distance may be this: the players' idea of a compromise is that they grant the owners perhaps three 'premier' players each season for partial compensation; the owners are holding out for 300.