MLB union backs off from strike date

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, August 13, 2002

CHICAGO -- For now, baseball players are holding back on setting a strike day.

Citing progress and sensing an agreement could be close, baseball players sprang a surprise Monday and backed off. However, they could set a date as soon as Friday if there isn't progress toward a labor contract.

Atlanta pitcher Tom Glavine, a senior member of the union's executive board, said after a 3 1/2-hour meeting that players were prepared to give the negotiating process ''every chance to succeed.''

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''We feel like there's a window of opportunity to get something done in the next several days and we're willing to explore that,'' he said.

Talks were to continue Tuesday in New York. The union had been expected to schedule a walkout that could have wiped out the rest of the season -- including the playoffs and World Series.

''There has been progress on a number of issues over the last several days,'' union head Donald Fehr said. ''It would be very nice if that progress continued and we reached a deal in short order. That's the goal.''

By delaying setting a deadline, the union increases pressure on the owners without the threat of an imminent walkout. Unlike the failed negotiations of 1994-95, both sides have had dozens of bargaining sessions in recent weeks and have narrowed their differences.

''You establish a date when you believe it is essential to reach an agreement, bearing in mind that a strike is the last thing the players want. And we are not at that point yet,'' Fehr said.

Fehr said the board will hold a telephone conference call Friday to review the status of talks once again. That gives negotiators three days to make sure the talks are still progressing.

Rob Manfred, the owners' top labor lawyer, thought it was possible to get an agreement ''in the very near future.''

''We look forward to getting back to the bargaining table, and hope we can reach a negotiated agreement without any need for the interruption of the season,'' he said.

A strike date seemed inevitable once the executive board scheduled a meeting. Making it seem even more ominous was that exactly eight years ago, baseball came to a halt, laid low by labor issues that eventually cost fans 921 games and a World Series. The 1994 strike lasted 232 days and was the longest stoppage in the history of U.S. major sports.

Twenty of 30 teams were off Monday, and about 50 players attended the meeting, with more listening in on a conference call. Fehr said players didn't want to have a public confrontation so close to the anniversary of last year's terrorist attacks.

''Sure it's a factor,'' he said. ''Players understand Sept. 11. Half were on the road when it hit.''

Last week, both sides agreed on a $100,000 raise in the minimum salary to $300,000 and to mandatory random testing for steroids. But they are still apart on the key issues of increased revenue sharing among the teams and management's desire for a luxury tax on high-payroll clubs.

''I think both parties have shown flexibility in an attempt to get to a common ground with respect to those core economic issues,'' Manfred said.

Fehr spoke with commissioner Bud Selig before the meeting, but declined to reveal details of the conversation. ''We talked about the overall situation in bargaining, the hopes we had as to what might transpire in the next few days,'' Fehr said.

Selig and Fehr spoke after management officials asked the union to hold off setting a strike date to allow additional talks without deadline pressure, one club official said, speaking on the condition he not be identified. Selig spokesman Rich Levin said the commissioner did not ask Fehr to delay setting a date.

At ballparks, players were relieved a deadline had been put off.

''Everybody is a winner if we can get through this thing without setting a strike date,'' Colorado's Larry Walker said.

In Crawford, Texas, White House deputy press secretary Scott McClellan said a strike ''would be a terrible thing to have happen.'' President Bush, the former owner of the Texas Rangers, has ''not been involved in any way,'' McClellan said.

''But it is clear,'' he added, ''that a strike would be unfortunate and terrible for baseball fans across America, and the president is an avid baseball fan.''

The luxury tax appears to be the most difficult issue. While there was a luxury tax in place in 1997, '98 and '99, owners viewed it as largely ineffective. The key to finding a deal may be finding a tax level that can satisfy management's desire to restrain salaries while not slowing them so much that players would strike over the issue.

Finding a way to slow salaries has been a perennial management goal, but players would like to keep things the way they are. Since 1976, the last season before free agency, the average salary has jumped from $51,500 to $2.38 million, a 46-fold increase.

Baseball has had eight work stoppages since 1972. Players don't want to finish the season without a contract, which expired Nov. 7, fearful owners will lock them out or change works rules. The union's preference has been to control the timing of a confrontation, preferring late in the season, when more money is at stake for owners. The Associated Press