Baseball's team owners were told by at least one attorney during their meeting in Chicago Thursday that their planned implementation of a salary cap system probably could not withstand a legal challenge by the Players Association, especially if the owners were to take that step immediately, sources close to the situation said.
Labor talks between the owners and on-strike players are scheduled to resume Monday morning in Washington, for the owners voted Thursday to postpone declaring an impasse in negotiations and unilaterally imposing a salary cap. They approved that measure by a 25-3 vote, but acting commissioner Bud Selig said implementation will take effect only if there's no breakthrough in negotiations with the union by next Thursday.
The two sides thus have a four-day window of bargaining opportunity next week, and they're coming off five days of discussions in Rye Brook, N.Y., where many of the principals apparently believed they were making progress -- at one point -- toward a settlement.
But the owners' reasons for delaying implementation for a second time remain a topic for debate.
Selig and other owners said that implementation is a last resort, and negotiations had to be given one more chance. "We decided to just keep trying to get an agreement until the calendar dictates that time has run out," Selig, the Brewers' owner, said yesterday from his office in Milwaukee. "If the union wants an agreement, this gives them another chance to get one."
But sources indicated that New York Mets chief executive officer Fred Wilpon brought a lawyer to the Thursday meeting who warned the owners that implementation of a salary cap would be a risky legal move, particularly if it were done then (the Mets, the Baltimore Orioles and Toronto Blue Jays were the three teams to vote against implementation after a seven-day delay). The union would challenge any impasse declaration and implementation with the National Labor Relations Board, and the NLRB already has announced its intention to issue a complaint against the owners for improperly withholding a $7.8 million payment to the players' pension fund in August.If the owners are found to have failed to bargain in good faith, the union could seek an injunction to keep a salary cap from remaining in effect.
Participants in Thursday's meeting said Friday that several owners argued for immediate implementation. Union officials still seem to believe that only a surrender on their part on the dispute's central issue -- the owners' insistence upon having a salary cap or the taxation-system equivalent of one, and the players' resistance to anything like that -- will produce an agreement next week.
But that doesn't mean that the owners' decision to delay implementation necessarily was mere posturing for the NLRB, or that talks are doomed to break down again. People on both sides say there was genuine progress late Tuesday night in Rye Brook on the taxation issue.
"What we saw were discussions that were positive and moving," union chief Donald Fehr said Friday from New York. "But that was only on one issue."
The talks broke off Wednesday, when the owners thought the union was going to bring them a formal proposal and union officials offered only a series of suggestions. But sources say union officials were in contact with members of the owners' bargaining committee by telephone Wednesday night -- after the owners had traveled to Chicago -- to try to clear up the misunderstanding. On Thursday, the negotiating committee recommended the delay in implementation to the rest of the owners.
Fehr was noncommittal Friday as to whether the union will have a new proposal to present Monday, saying: "I don't know how things will develop on Monday."
Colorado Rockies Chairman Jerry McMorris, who had indicated he'd been optimistic Tuesday night that a deal was within reach, said following the owners' meeting that he remains hopeful of a settlement.
"We want to get this behind us," McMorris said. "We want baseball to be played next season. . . . Nobody wants (a legal battle). That's not what we got into baseball for."
The owners, according to people in the meeting, also were told Thursday that the combined debt of the 28 major league teams is approximately $600 million -- or an average of over $21 million per club. About 20 percent of that debt is from teams borrowing from baseball's central line of credit, the owners were told.
Philadelphia Phillies owner Bill Giles Friday would not confirm any specific numbers, but said the amount of money the clubs have borrowed from the central line of credit is "by far the largest number we've ever had in baseball."