Baseball was back to being a game today instead of the topic of negotiations. But it took a change of heart on the part of the owners late Tuesday night to get the ball back in play.
Lee MacPhail, chief negotiator for the owners as head of the Player Relations Committee, said the group's four-man executive committee met after the last of four negotiating sessions Tuesday and agreed to drop its demand for a 100 percent limit, or cap, on salary increases an arbitrator can award players.
"Lee has the authority to make an agreement, and we didn't have a problem with that," said Milwaukee Brewers owner Bud Selig, who is chairman of the PRC. "We've all been together for a long time, and (MacPhail) knew where our thoughts were. We've had enough discussions so that he almost instinctively knows what one of us or another will think."
"It was really the last two meetings on Tuesday that got us there," MacPhail said today. "We just had to compromise. We had come to the end of the road and both parties had to compromise. We dropped the salary cap, or 100 percent limit, they dropped their opposition to three-year eligibility and the criteria for salary arbitration was a compromise."
Both parties did compromise. The Major League Players Association, led by acting executive director Donald Fehr, allowed the salary arbitration eligibility requirement to be raised to three years from its present two years. But the new regulation won't go into effect for another two years. So, if by 1987, a player does not have three full years of major league service, he will have to wait another year before being able to file for arbitration.
The agreement was reached Wednesday morning when the two sides met at MacPhail's apartment and Barry Rona, PRC general counsel, told Fehr the owners would be willing to drop the cap.
"What happened," Fehr said today, "was this -- and I had no idea that this was going to happen. At the earliest of the two Tuesday evening meetings, we had said, 'Hey, we've looked at this again, and we're trying to find an agreement, but there aren't going to be any salary caps. What we didn't know was that overnight after those meetings, they said, 'Okay, we'll find another way.' I didn't know that until Wednesday morning. Once they said that, everything fell into place."
There also was the matter of the presence of Commissioner Peter Ueberroth, who announced at 11 a.m. Wednesday he was joining the negotiations. All indications are that the agreement had been made before he arrived, but there also are indications it might have been made in part out of concern about what might happen should he arrive and find there had been no progress.
"Some people have talked about my role," Ueberroth said. "I want you to know very clearly that I had no role. It was done by these two teams of people headed by Don Fehr and Lee MacPhail. They put baseball back on the field."
Ueberroth didn't say what he would have done had there not been an agreement. There was considerable speculation that he would step in to end the strike that he had earlier said he could not allow.
"Ueberroth hangs over these negotiations like the ghost of Banquo," Edward Bennett Williams, Baltimore Orioles owner and a member of the PRC, was quoted as saying.
Selig said Ueberroth was not a factor in the decision by the PRC executive committee to do without the salary arbitration cap.
"The commissioner is very active, and I take no umbrage with that," Selig said. "If he had planned to do something, I think that is an indication that he is an active commissioner, and that's positive."
Once the agreement was announced, others involved in the negotiations hinted that Ueberroth's presence was felt.
"An agreement between two sides without the necesity of outside intervention of any sort is the best way to make an agreeement, because it's better to live with an agreement you made yourself than to live with an agreement imposed upon you," MacPhail said.
MacPhail was asked if he was threatened with an imposed settlement.
"No, I wouldn't necessarily say that," MacPhail said. "I think a lot of people decided that this was not going to be another 50-day strike (as in the last strike in 1981). Baseball couldn't afford that. It's not fair to the public, and I think both sides recognized that and realized we had to do something to settle it."
"For one reason or another," Fehr said Wednesday night, "a sense of urgency pervaded the negotiations, and that's what accomplished the result we have."
The pressure may not have been entirely on the owners. There were reports the players were not happy about striking solely to avoid raising the salary arbitration eligibilty to three years, but Fehr denied any pressure.
"If the question is, 'Was I directed, asked, suggested or pushed by the executive board to act in a manner inconsistent with the general directions I've had since last winter?' the answer is no," Fehr said.
Today, Fehr admitted he hadn't wanted to agree to a change in the year in which a player is eligible for arbitration, but said the agreement seemed to be well-received by the players "even though it doesn't go 100 percent in our direction."
The five-year deal that will run through 1989 involved a large increase in the owners' contributions to the players' pension fund. The players had been getting $15.5 million a year, which was one-third of the network television contract. In this agreement, the owners won't pay one-third, but will contribute $196 million: $25 million for the retroactive year, 1984; $33 million from 1985 through 1988, and $39 million in 1989.
The agreement also raises the minimum salary from $40,000 to $60,000, and eliminates the free-agent reentry draft and professional player compensation. Now, free agents can negotiate with any club they choose. A club that signs a free agent will not have to worry about giving up a roster player as before, but, instead, will give up an amateur draft pick.