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Owners May Go Back to Square One

Baseball: They appear likely to shoot down agreement today, sending negotiations back to starting point.


CHICAGO — Peace parley or war council? It isn't certain but mounting evidence suggests that enough major league owners, meeting today to vote on the proposed labor agreement, will risk a new war with the players' union by rejecting the agreement that would end three years of internal friction.

The proposed agreement, negotiated to near completion in early August, then completed during the World Series in Atlanta, would seemingly provide the framework for a partnership between owners and players, assuring labor peace through 2001, if the union picked up a sixth-year option.

The alternative, just as the game has begun to regain public support after the disastrous players' strike of 1994-95, isn't pretty.

If the agreement is rejected--and it appears that anywhere from the required eight to as many as 14 teams will vote against it--there will be no interleague play in 1997, no revenue sharing for the small-market teams, no luxury tax aimed at controlling big-market spending, and no major marketing and licensing deals to help take baseball back to the levels of football and basketball in finances and popularity.

There would be, however, the possibility of a death-knell lockout or strike next spring if the owners tried to return to court and unilaterally implemented their own work rules.

And it is almost certain management negotiator Randy Levine will resign immediately.

"Some people predict we could simply revert to the status quo, but I think that's unduly optimistic," a National League executive said. "I think there would be serious acrimony again [between the owners and players]."

Said one management source, "If the owners repudiate their own negotiator on this, there will be an eruption of the type you can't believe. Why would [union leader] Don Fehr ever negotiate with them again? Why would he ever trust them again?"

With all of that, a group of dissident owners led by Jerry Reinsdorf of the Chicago White Sox has been lobbying to reject the agreement because it:

--Restores service time to the players for the 75 regular-season days they were on strike in 1994-95.

--Does not include a stringent enough tax or cap on payrolls to control salary growth and reduce the disparity between big and small markets.

--Gives the union two tax-free years at the end.

Referring to the absence of a luxury tax in 2000 and 2001, a dissident president of a National League team said:

"All of this was about creating a new system that would help control salary growth, but we come out of this with nothing. We come out of it with the same system we've been trying to change. There's nothing for us to build on in the next agreement."

Sources said Tuesday there is a possibility that the owners may take two actions today, rejecting the agreement and authorizing a delegation to go back to the union with the same proposal except for elimination of the second, tax-free year in 2001. That would put the onus on the players and certainly would be rejected by them.

Said a union lawyer, "We have an agreement. We negotiated it in good faith with all of the elements interdependent. For the owners to come back to us at this point and say they want to eliminate one of the key elements would be nothing more than a publicity stunt."

The agreement requires ratification by 21 of the clubs, but Atlanta Brave President Stan Kasten said Tuesday that it definitely is going to be defeated.

"It's a horrible dilemma for teams," Kasten said. "You have two bad choices and you have to pick one. If you accept this deal, it's likely to yield annual losses of $100 million, maybe $200 million. If you reject it, then for some period of time you are in the status quo, the current malaise. Neither decision moves the game along or fixes its problems."

A Times survey puts the count some where in this neighborhood: 15 in favor of ratification, five against and eight undecided.

The five adamantly opposing the deal have been there from the start. Besides Reinsdorf, they include David Glass of the Kansas City Royals, H. Wayne Huizenga of the Florida Marlins, Claude Brochu of the Montreal Expos and Andy MacPhail of the Chicago Cubs.

The undecided include the Angels, Minnesota Twins, Seattle Mariners, Houston Astros, Boston Red Sox, Cleveland Indians, Detroit Tigers, and acting Commissioner Bud Selig's Milwaukee Brewers.

From that list, the Red Sox, Mariners and Astros are leaning toward a no vote, giving Reinsdorf the eight he needs to reject the agreement, but it could become a landslide that way, with even Selig instructing his daughter, club counsel Wendy Selig-Prieb to vote against it, drawing several more clubs with him.

Selig has never put an issue to vote without knowing the outcome and trying to influence it, but on the threshold of peace he has suddenly wavered, saying this is too important a decision for arm twisting, that the clubs have to make it on their own.

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