Commissioner Peter Ueberroth stepped into the major league baseball negotiations today, announcing at an afternoon news conference a series of possible solutions to the deadlocked talks.
"In effect, I'm going to put bread on the negotiating table," Ueberroth said. "And I hope they can break bread and find a solution before the 1985 season is damaged."
A negotiating session ended abruptly Wednesday after the union formally rejected an owners proposal on pensions. No new sessions have been scheduled, and players are set to strike after Monday's games unless there is an agreement.
Ueberroth discussed two of the ideas that he plans to give to the owners and the players union in writing by 8 a.m. Friday. The suggestions involved the thorny issues of pension contribution and salary arbitration.
The owners currently give the Major League Players Association $15.5 million a year toward its pension fund. Traditionally, but not by contract, the contribution has been one-third of the television proceeds. The union now wants $60 million a year -- one-third of the six-year $1.1 billion network television package the owners signed in 1984 -- an increase of approximately $45 million.
Ueberroth proposes that, while the players are finishing this season's schedule with full pay, the $45 million difference be put in an escrow account. Then, the two sides would set a date to begin discussing how to divide it. From that date on, for each day that the issue remained unresolved, $1 million would be withdrawn from the escrow account and donated to amateur baseball programs or charities. If the discussion lasted 45 days, there would be nothing left to negotiate.
His second plan, which Ueberroth called the "plain and simple solution," had four parts.
Under this proposal, the owners would: 1) drop any discussion of a salary cap in these negotiations; 2) drop any discussion of negative changes (to the players) in free agency; 3) make the increase in the pension plan contribution retroactive to 1984; 4) stop asking -- other than in this agreement -- for the players to solve their financial problems. Further, over the next five years the owners' contribution to the pension plan would have graduated increases from 50 percent up to 100 percent over the $15.5 million.
What the owners would get in return is a break on the issue of salary arbitration. Players would have to have three full years of major league service, instead of the current two, and an arbitrator's award would be limited to 100 percent of the player's current salary. A "superstar clause" would exempt top-name players from the 100 percent provision.
This plan would apply only to future major league players, Ueberroth said. Current major leaguers would "all be grandfathered," and live under the present two-year, no-limit system.
"We're trying to be helpful," Ueberroth said. "They (the two sides) are able to reject it all or not. I'd just like to ask them to get it done. Let's seek some common ground. Let's seek compromise."
Donald Fehr, acting executive director of the players union, said he was encouraged by some of Ueberroth's comments but also was discouraged.
He wanted no part of Ueberroth's salary arbitration plan. "The players association and the current players," he said, "are not going to deprive future players the opportunity to have a vehicle pursuant to which they can have fair and impartial resolution of their salaries."
On the idea of the money being deducted as they negotiate, Fehr said, "No, it doesn't seem to me to be a workable solution . . . If the clubs said, 'Let's play and put the entire TV package in escrow and then figure it out,' then we could talk to them. But not with just the players' portion."
Lee MacPhail, chief negotiator for the owners as head of the four-member Player Relations Committee, which includes Baltimore Orioles owner Edward Bennett Williams, said, "Obviously, we will study whatever the commissioner wishes to propose, but I cannot comment on the substance of his suggestions until I receive them in full. I will discuss them with the PRC, which will convene tomorrow, and will respond to the commissioner as promptly as possible."
Ueberroth, who was hired by baseball owners 10 months ago after serving as president of the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee, said the possible solutions came partly from fans, non-paid consultants and "his own ideas."
In a move that appeared to put even more distance between him and the owners, Ueberroth said he would not seek a second term as commissioner unless the owners agree to let players and umpires participate in the election process.
He agreed with the owners that the first priority of baseball was to preserve the financial integrity of the industry and said he was convinced of the owners' financial problems.
But then he said the players, owners, umpires and others should share in the financial growth of the game. "Players especially . . . because they're the ones who have the shortened careers; they're the ones who stand up there and face the 90 mile-an-hour fast balls."
Ueberroth said he did not come forward earlier because it would have been "detrimental to the process."
"I can't take either position," he said. "I don't believe in either of their positions."