|ESPN.com | Baseball Index | Peter Gammons Bio|
Labor mess just getting started
By Peter Gammons
Special to ESPN.com
A month ago, baseball's banker went to Milwaukee, laid out the spreadsheets and told Bud Selig that his industry had drawn $4.5 billion worth of losses in the last few years and was in the process of losing another $500 million in the next calendar year. Obviously, things had to change. So Selig took it to the streets and announced his contraction plan that theoretically would begin to undo the economic nonsense of two shortsighted expansions.
And those streets are going to run red for the next month. The Players Association will savage Selig for his self-interests, right down to the minimal increase to his ticket (100,000 at best) and TV markets (parking-meter change compared to big markets) that the elimination of the Twins would produce for the Brewers, down from the P.A. credo that if one follows the line of negotiations, it always leads to what's best for Milwaukee, once a small market and now a medium market.
The owners will go hard after union chief Donald Fehr, and how his guild has always represented the richest players, not the "poor" whose minimum wage is $200,000. Fehr had never opposed contraction; he expressed the opinion during the 1994-95 winter that there were too many teams. Owners maintain that in his discussions with MLB officials Paul Beeston and Rob Manfred last spring, he signed on to the concept of contraction, and members of the Blue Ribbon Commission claim Fehr testified that he did not oppose contraction when he was interviewed by that group. Of course, that was when Fehr was asked his opinion, which he was not when Selig dropped the bomb that 97 percent of people in the baseball world knew was coming this past Tuesday.
The Players Association will try to go through every legal hoop -- from baseball arbitration to the courts to the National Labor Relations Board -- to stop it, and while MLB has a new law firm at his side, the fact is that Fehr, Gene Orza, Michael Weiner and the leaders of the Association have a history of winning all these battles and making MLB's legal eagles seem like law's Anthony Youngs. Because of that, the Association has never had to sit down and negotiate anything, at least not since Lee MacPhail negotiated a settlement to the one-day 1985 strike. This is what the union wants: to win in court, stall out their Four Corners Offensive Strategy, and force the owners to play 2002 with a rollover of the contract for 2001, which would maintain the status quo and give the players a huge bump in their pension benefits package. No responsibility.
If the owners can dart the legal coals thrown in front of them by Fehr, Orza and Weiner and force a negotiation, what they're seeking is to essentially negotiate chunks of the recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Commission, which included George Steinbrenner and Fred Wilpon in their meetings.
Here's what the owners want:
Essentially, they feel there are several parts that have to be worked over the next few years, but one of them is not allowing Jeffrey Loria to move the Expos to the Northern Virginia area for many reasons, among them Orioles owner Peter Angelos' litigation, the feeling that Loria bought the Expos to move them and Washington D.C.'s unpreparedness for a new team at this point.
Baseball has several problems. Montreal is hopeless. Minnesota is a mini-mart without a stadium, which owners think is like Houston, Cleveland or Baltimore in football -- primed for a move then a return when someone in another economy builds a viable ballpark. Florida and Tampa Bay are dead areas. Oakland must move, either around the Bay to San Jose, or somewhere else. And Washington D.C. needs a team, although baseball feels it must be downtown, a la owner Abe Polin of the NBA's Washington Wizards (who found nearly 70 percent of his audience gets to his arena via the Metro), and it is at least five years away from being ready. Eventually, owners know they will have to pay Angelos and Giants owner Peter Magowan reparations to put a team on the other side of D.C. and The Bay. But that's part of a broader scheme.
The owners want a dispersal draft and that will be a battle, as well. If it gets to one, the Players Association clearly wants players to have a choice of electing the pool or free agency. "There is no way owners are buying that," says one owner. OK. How about if all players with multiyear deals (see accompanying inline) can elect to be in the pool or be free agents? That way an under-market Vladimir Guerrero can hit the market, but Rick Reed or Lee Stevens can have his deal guaranteed and underwritten by MLB. "The owners will fight that to the gutters," says an MLB official. One thing is certain -- a dispersal draft will cause a ripple of interest in 28 teams, especially if the Pirates take Guerrero or Eric Milton or Josh Beckett and trade whichever one they choose to the Yankees for five players.
Meanwhile, owners hope that the paralysis in the industry -- one agent compared Selig's announcement to a terrorist attack perpetrated to spread fear throughout the players -- has an impact that slows down the industry and, if they ever get to the table, pushes the union lawyers to a deal.
"The economic figures we had thrown at us were staggering," said one general manager on Friday night, upon returning from two days of meetings in Chicago. "This is not a pretty picture. We talked about it -- how many teams really have much cash to spend other than the Yankees, Mariners and maybe the Rangers? Not many."
Players and their lawyers don't understand this, but the fact is that the national economy has to have a dramatic impact on the market. Before this week, club marketing offices have been told to expect a downturn of 20-40 percent in corporate sponsorship, luxury box and season-ticket investments. No salary arbitrator is going to care, but that is a lot of money.
The insurance industry is putting the clamps down on baseball. "With the restrictions they're putting on exemptions -- for instance, if a player has a history of back injuries, they won't cover any back injury -- as well as the incredible increase in premiums and the new limit to three years of coverage," says one general manager, "there is a dampening effect on all our signings."
The fact that MLB doesn't have a schedule, a clear alignment of their leagues (where will Arizona end up?) and no ticket or marketing plans because of the uncertainty, is another drain. The Giants, for instance, had 29,000 season tickets last season. If this thing keeps dragging on, they could face a 20 percent reduction, which means they likely won't be able to afford Barry Bonds and Jason Schmidt.
"There is almost no trade movement, because no one is sure what the economy is going to be and whether or not they can get help through the dispersal draft," says a GM. "No movement makes players uneasy, and it's not the general managers' doing, it's the real world."
So one theory is that Selig's scorched landscape will push the players to worry, about jobs, about security, about edging towards that $3 million average salary -- and adding a couple of $200,000 jobs isn't going to satisfy them.
Selig did not threaten either a signing freeze or a lockout, which management claims is a sign of his good will. Labor lawyers think that the ploy may be to reach an impasse and impose a system that the players either accept or strike, which management lawyers claim is a comical fear, since impasses are practically impossible to reach and MLB lawyers failed the last time they tried to get one on Dec. 22, 1994 (a day that will live in infamy).
So the top free agents should not be impacted. Jason Giambi may get signed by the Yankees as soon as the dead period is over. Barry Bonds? Until the clever utilization of the New York media by brilliant agent Scott Boras ends and the dollars have to go on the table, we will not know if the Mets are actually in it (three Yankee plants have already been printed, despite the fact that Brian Cashman has declared no interest), or if they'll do the Moises Alou thing and move on to spreading their cash elsewhere. Texas is expected to go after Chan Ho Park and Steve Karsay.
But otherwise, Cleveland is cutting its payroll from $95 million to $78 million, with $14 million worth of uncertain or bad contracts in Jaret Wright, Charles Nagy and Wil Cordero. Los Angeles has to cut, with $18-30 million in dead contracts. Boston can't get back to a $110 million payroll until its ownership situation is settled, and there are some real bad contracts there (Jose Offerman, $8.4 million for 2002 with a buyout for 2003).
"Why overspend for a free agent," says one AL GM, "if you have a shot at Jose Vidro or Tony Armas, Mike Cuddyer or Corey Koskie, Brad Penny or Preston Wilson? Those are three teams with a lot of talent, and the Twins and Marlins run deep."
Selig made his announcement in the bowels of the O'Hare Hyatt Hotel in suburban Chicago. It was there, in 1990, that the owners took their stand and declared that unless the players accepted "Pay For Performance," there would be a lockout, which there was, to nobody's benefit except. The next time the owners had one of their meetings in that hotel, they voted to effectively end the reign of a good man named Fay Vincent, only to be stunned when one owner with guts stepped before the media and condemned his fellow travelers -- Texas owner George W. Bush.
This time, it was contraction. As Selig walked the halls to the announcement two days after the conclusion of an historic World Series, he appeared to be the King of Angst, prompting a suggested musical accompaniment ("There's a little black spot on the sun today ... It's my soul up there ... It's the same old thing as yesterday ... it's my destiny to be the King of Pain").
Is this Pay for Performance, or any of those crazy concepts that Richard Ravitch or Ray Grebey or other fun-loving negotiating predecessors threw at the players? Or is this real?
The only thing we know is that in the end, the real game is played by the lawyers, and with their hourly fees, there are no losers, except those that actually like baseball.
Looking back to 1997
And when one looks at some of the protection lists -- players passed over and players selected -- one realizes that not only isn't there much talent beyond the top players, but Padres owner John Moores' idea to have a re-entry draft with each club protecting 25-30 players from its organization is a great idea to add to the leveling mix.
20 players you'll never believe were protected
Players who were unprotected, not pulled back and completely ignored
Players unprotected, then pulled back
What the D-Backs and Devil Rays did with those picks
A few final thoughts
ESPN.com: Help | Advertiser Info | Contact Us | Tools | Site Map | Jobs at ESPN.com