Philadelphia Daily News - February 13, 1980
Baseball Owners Dealing With Well-Funded Union
Baseball By Bill Conlin
There are several bright sides to the Olympic boycott controversy.
Absnow hasn't surfaced yet; that is, Abdul the FBI Arab hasnt offered a USOC official a satchel of money to buy his nephew, Hareem, a spot in the luge finals.
Better yet, much better, the quadrennial mix of national interests and sport has served to submerge baseball politics, a subject which should have been drowned at birth.
But somewhere behind closed doors in the canyons of Manhattan, the Major League Player Relations Committee is glaring across an issue-laden table at Marvin Miller, the Dalai Lama of the Players Association.
Like the Olympics, the basic agreement – labor contract to you – between the owners and their former serfs seems to come up about every four years, regular as a plague of locusts.
IN 1972, A simmering dispute over increased pension contributions dominated the spring training news. The players hit the bricks on Good Friday, but the owners capitulated after six games of the regular season were canceled. Pete Rose doesn’t exactly recall the strike with the zeal of a Molly McGuire. "It cost me another 200-hit season, that's what it did," Rose said after lashing 198.
The owners wobbled into the 1976 negotiations in a daze. A Federal arbitrator, Peter Seitz, had sent them to the table with a whole new ball-game to botch. Seitz had declared Andy Messersmith a free agent, end-Hfrng a century-long run for the reserve clause which bound player to owner til death or an unconditional release did them part.
What followed was one of the rich jokes of baseball history – the Great Spring Training Lockout The owners closed down the Florida and Arizona camps and circled the wagons. While the Player Relations Committee haggled with Miller in the worst mismatch since Italian tanks vs. Ethiopian spears, the rank and file sat at poolside pounding beer. Two weeks into the scheduled exhibition season, the owners asked Commissioner Bowie Kuhn to throw them a rope.
Kuhn ordered the camps and the season to open while negotiations continued. Militants – there were some among the owners – felt the surrender came too soon, that if they had poshed the Players Association to the brink of unemployment a majority of the high-salaried stars would have broken ranks and sundered the union.
THEY SIGNED the agreement which expires next month in August of 1976, a contract which introduced the re-entry draft for free agents and forever changed the owner-player relationship, provoking an avalanche of long-term contracts and incredible salaries. Miller must have laughed uncontrollably to himself when both parties agreed the free agent and re-entry parts of the contract would be conducted on an "experimental' basis, subject to review by both parties in 1979.
There is about as much chance the players will let the owners toughen the rules of free agency as there is for the AFL to return to the 12-hour day. American Labor has a habit of clinging to victories won. The owners can look it up. And the sooner they come to the realization that they are dealing with a well-funded, superbly-led craft union with no equivalent replacements, the better they will be able to deal with the basic reality of their situation.
Free agency is a fait accompli So is some form of re-entry draft. And sports owners should concentrate on cutting future losses rather than trying to recapture territory solidly in enemy hands. Establishing a reasonable compensation plan to keep predators like George Stein brenner in check would seem to be a healthier road to take as the industry attempts to cope with the inflation of the "80s. There again, the owners seem more intent on breaking the system than improving it and learning to live with it.
THE OWNERS WANT to put in a salary structure which would pay star and donkey alike an equal sum during their first five years. Ecccch! Who's advising these guys. Calvin Coolidge?
Players are already trickling into spring training camps. The Yankees and Red Sox open informal spring training this week.
Will there be another lockout when the camps open in earnest around March 1? Probably not. Both sides took a media battering in 76. And the lockout itself became a travesty when many teams provided equipment and a warm blessing for players working out at makeshift sites.
Phillies players ran a disorganized but well-attended camp for themselves at Grant Field, a former Little League field in nearby Dunedin which is now the headquarters of the Toronto Blue Jays. The ‘76 Phillies ran away with the Eastern Division and their preparation during the three-week lockout contributed to a fast start.
There is little news from the owners' camp, understandable with a $500,000 fine facing those who reveal the game plan. But many management people feel that spring training will go on as scheduled while negotiations continue.
"I think it will be pretty quiet until the last couple of weeks,” a baseball man said the other day. "Then we'll probably start calling each other names. The main feeling I get this time is that the owners are solidly united. I think theyll take a common stand."
THAT WILL BE a first, folks, like finding 26 Iranians with the same political views.
What both sides may lose sight of is that most fans are interested only in seeing a good game of baseball, that these palace revolts are a crashing bore. Amateur umpires had no effect on the gate whatever last spring. The owners, however, would be ill-advised to try to break a strike or orchestrate a regular-season lockout with amateurs or minor-league players.
Professional sports salaries – particularly at a time when the dollar is slowly strangling people forced to live in the real world – have created bitterness, awe and envy. But they are the sum and substance of a phenomenon the spectator has endorsed by his presence.
As Shakespeare wrote. The play's the thing."