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Strike Date Could Be Coming


After months of doomsday speculation, public relations campaigns and sniping from both sides, the most significant strike call of the Major League Baseball season looms as the union meets Monday in Chicago.

Frustrated by lagging negotiations on a new bargaining agreement and concerned about the unilateral implementation of new work rules after the World Series, the Major League Baseball Players Assn. has chosen the All-Star break as a time to turn up the heat on team owners.

The union thinks that setting a date for a work stoppage, most likely in September, might spur more serious bargaining sessions because the players would be poised to deliver a significant economic blow to an industry that last year generated a record $3.55 billion in revenue.

Sources from both sides say some progress has been made on three core issues: increased revenue sharing among the clubs; a luxury tax on teams with high payrolls; and the format of a worldwide draft. Still, there is little to indicate that an agreement is imminent. This season has been played even though a five-year pact expired after the last World Series.

There has been no movement on a fourth issue--testing for illegal substances, including steroids. The union opposes random drug testing on privacy grounds.

Also clouding the process is the union's grievance on contraction--the owners' ability to eliminate teams without union approval. Arbitrator Shyam Das is expected to rule on the matter in the next month or two, and either side could be awarded a major bargaining chip for negotiations.

Baseball has had eight work stoppages since 1972, the last spanning 232 days and costing owners an estimated $900 million in revenue, players about $350 million in salaries, and resulting in the cancellation of the 1994 World Series and a shortened '95 season.

Bud Selig, baseball's commissioner, has vowed not to lock out players through the end of postseason play, so a strike is risky for the union in the court of public opinion. Players are wary of being perceived as greedy and taking the blame for shutting down the game.

Owners seem equally uneasy. The union historically has pounded them in labor disputes, capitalizing when owners have split into factions and lost their resolve to back their own negotiators.

Determined to maintain a united front this time, Selig recently lifted a gag order--and the threat of a $1 million fine--he had imposed on owners and other team executives. He now wants ownership's message out, and recently outlined the new policy in a league-wide memo, with instructions to owners about sticking to a script.

Dodger Chairman Bob Daly, who became familiar with labor negotiations when he was studio boss at Warner Bros., stuck close to that party line when he said an agreement must be reached because of what's at stake.

"Baseball has financial problems that have to be adjusted, but we should be able to work something out with the union to make [an agreement] happen," he said. "The thought that we would maybe be sitting here this September and have no baseball, after what we all went through last September and what baseball did to help the country heal a little bit, and the way we were praised for doing it, I just think it's so shortsighted on everyone's part.

"The fans deserve a playoff and World Series. To lose it again would be terrible. Both parties have to be responsible enough to sit in a room and act like adults and make a deal. [Owners are] clearly behind Bud as far as the idea that we believe that adjustments have to be made and parity is our No. 1 issue. His job is to get us to a better financial situation."

Negotiators, who took a break in conjunction with the three-day All-Star break, are scheduled to return to the table Thursday amid much uncertainty and rancor that figures to increase. A long interruption in play would cost owners--who face $1.7 billion in debt on new stadiums and claim operating losses of $500 million last year--hundreds of millions in lost revenue, players millions in lost salaries and affect everyone from stadium workers to companies that support the game's expansive daily operation.

All of baseball risks ending a renaissance. Although attendance is down 5%, it is expected to top a healthy 70 million this season. It took a while, but buoyed by Cal Ripken's record for consecutive games played, the 1998 home run chase between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, and Barry Bonds' record-setting homer barrage of last season, fans have returned to the game in droves even though many swore off their allegiance after the last strike.

That's why neither side wants to be blamed for another work stoppage and why both sides have been courting major media outlets with their spin on the story. Selig and his top negotiators met with editors and reporters from some of the nation's largest newspapers, including The Times. Union chief Don Fehr responded with his own tour, making himself available to reporters.

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