There will be no baseball strike, for now.
A strike could start next Thursday at the earliest and June 1, 1982, at the latest. And perhaps there will be movement in the negotiations prompted by the National Labor Relations Board proceedings and there will be no strike at all.
Representatives for the owners and the players voluntarily agreed today in U.S. District Court to postpone the strike deadline set for Friday. This agreement eliminated the need for temporary restraining order that attorneys for the NLRB had intended to request today.
Instead, Daniel Silverman, the regional director of the NLRB, filed a petition for a preliminary injunction. That injunction would prevent the owners from implementing their free-agent compensation plan until next spring and give the players the right to strike on that issue by June 1, 1982, should they want to exercise that option.
U.S. District Judge Henry F. Werker said he would begin hearings on the injunction next Wednesday in Rochester, where he will also be presiding over a criminal trial. Said Silverman: "I am reasonably certain a decision will be reached in Rochester next week."
Thus, the dispute between players and owners, which has dragged on for more than a year, remains unresolved. But the postponement appears to emphasize an eagerness by both sides to avoid a walkout.
If the judge refuses to grant the injunction, or modifies it in any way that is not satisfactory to the Major League Players Association, the players have the right to strike no earlier than 24 and no later than 48 hours after that ruling.
If the judge grants an injunction that is satisfactory to the players but not to the owners, the owners could decide to appeal it in the U.S. Court of Appeals. If the appeals court panel (three judges) overturns the injunction or changes it -- even by just a word, one of the players' attorneys explained -- the players would again have the right to strike 24-48 hours after that decision.
Marvin Miller, the executive director of the players association, said, "Under the present contract, we have no right to strike unless we begin it no later than June 1. We have no rights. What this does is return those rights to us."
"We are the innocent party. We didn't violate the law. We shouldn't end up worse off than the guilty party," he added. After the proceedings ended, Miller went to the New York Sheraton Hotel to inform the players' executive board of what had happened.
The board tonight gave full support to Miller's participation in an agreement.
"There will be no strike until we see what the court does," said Oriole Doug DeCinces, the American League player representative. "Once they rule, we'll see if the outcome is positive or negative for the association.
"If it's positive, it looks like we won't have a strike. If it's negative, we could go out. And if there's no movement, there will be a strike."
Bob Boone of Philadelphia, the NL player rep, added: "Now we know there's hope of avoiding a strike."
The NLRB's petition for the injunction did not request the owners to turn over the financial data. The players have insisted the owners must produce that data to substantiate their claim that free agent compensation is necessary to the financial well-being of baseball. The hearing before an administrative law judge of the NLRB, scheduled to begin on June 15, will make that determination. The owners have the right to appeal any decision made at that hearing.
Richard Moss, a consulting attorney to the Players Association, said, "If the injunction is granted, while it is in force, the board will hear the data case. If the ruling is in the player's favor, they (the board) will fashion an appropriate remedy. If the owners are obliged to put across the data, the owners have the right to go through the (bargaining) cycle again."
But, he added, "If the board decision is against us, then there is still the right to strike" by June 1, 1982.
Assuming the injunction is granted, the players do not strike, and no negotiated settlement is made in between, everything would be put off for another year. Silverman said, "In order to restore the status quo, we're saying the matter should be put off on the same timetable from 1981 to 1982."
Some people close to the situation do not believe it will get that far. As one source put it, "A lot of owners think the (financial) data is more important than compensation."
There is always the possibility of a negotiated settlement, though Kenneth E. Moffett, the federal mediator, said, "My guess is there will be no negotiations until after the judge makes a determination."
But others contemplate a different scenario: same time next year, in the Doral Inn, on Lexington Avenue.
Certainly the prospects are good for several weeks of legal wrangling. Werker has asked for briefs to be filed at least 24 hours before the hearings begin Wednesday. Because he will also be hearing a criminal trial, his time and attention will be divided, adding to the length of the proceeding.
The Player Relations Committee may be ready to have owners appear at the hearing to explain their statements on the financial health of the game. For both those reasons, a strike next Thursday, though possible, is unlikely.
For once, today, the litigious side of baseball had a touch of humor. After meeting in the federal building, the parties marched across Foley Square, to the Federal Courthouse, trailed by 50 reporters. One veteran court observer said there hadn't been that many reporters in the courthouse since the John Mitchell-Maurice Stans Watergate trial.
For 45 minutes, reporters, lawyers and baseball fans ("Are we gonna play ball, Mr. Miller?") milled about the marble lobby with the gold-inlaid ceiling. Finally, at 4:30, the assemblage entered courtroom 312, whereupon the reporters decided to turn the jury box into a press box.
Werker entered the courtroom, surveyed the lawyers, and said, "To use Abbott and Costello, who's on first?"