The two sides in the major league baseball contract negotiations finally got down to one of the major issues separating them today. But talking and agreeing are two different matters, and the union was not at all happy that the owners resubmitted a proposal to alter current salary arbitration procedures.
"I think their . . . remaking of this proposal, if that's what it was, does not evidence a desire to reach an agreement," said Don Fehr, acting executive director of the Major League Players Association. "It seems to be provocative, if not deliberately so."
The owners, led by chief negotiator Lee MacPhail, presented the same proposal for salary arbitration -- this time in contract language -- that has been on the table since February. That proposal would require players to have played three full seasons in the majors before being eligible to file for arbitration, instead of the present two years. It also would limit what an arbitrator can use as comparison in making a judgment, and would limit an award to no more than double what the player made in his previous contract.
The union wants players in their second year, those who have established themselves by fulfilling certain criteria, to be able to go through arbitration.
Thursday was the fourth consecutive day of meetings as the two sides face an Aug. 6 strike deadline. More meetings are scheduled Friday.
"When you hear this, you have to have a feeling that they are not interested in reaching an agreement," Fehr said of the owners' arbitration proposal. "If the owners are interested in avoiding a confrontation, they had better do something about it, because at this point they aren't."
MacPhail agreed that there was nothing new in the proposal and didn't know why Fehr should have thought there would be.
"We had no new proposal on arbitration. It's the same one that been on the table since February. There should have been no surprises," MacPhail said. "They wanted to enlarge eligibility. Maybe they expected if they offered to drop that, we'd drop ours. But salary arbitration, to us, is a very important and serious part of our position.
"Everyone knows that from the beginning we have said that we have to do something to retard the increases in player salaries, and you can't do that by just saying it. It has to be implemented to have that effect."
Fehr said he thought he would hear something new.
"It's not entirely unexpected," Fehr said. "If the question is, 'Did I anticipate the same old stuff at this date?' -- the answer is 'No, I didn't quite anticipate it.' Was I surprised? The answer is no, given how the bargaining has gone. Does it disappoint me, 12 days before the strike date? Yes."
Fehr said he cut short the meeting, which lasted 90 minutes, at the offices of the American and National leagues, to talk to his player representatives.
"What I have to do now -- and that's the reason it broke up -- is to communicate with my membership, the overwhelming majority of which has less than six years of major league service, that the economic opportunities that have been available to all other players are now gone," Fehr said.
The sides never discussed another major issue: the $60 million the players want from the new $1.1 billion television contract to go into their pension fund, although MacPhail said, "There's no way that's feasible with the economics of the industry, under any circumstances."