Fehr optimistic about labor talks as deadline looms

SAN FRANCISCO -- Don Fehr admits that the history of baseball's labor negotiations has not been very good: Eight strikes or lockouts since 1972 and talks that went down to the final hours four years ago.

But with the current labor deal expiring on Dec. 19, Fehr does see reasons why negotiations could be different this time around.

"What I can say is that the overall atmosphere of the sport is such that there are a lot of reasons that people on the outside should be optimistic about our chances of reaching an agreement," Fehr, the head of the baseball players' union, said Thursday at a luncheon hosted by Fox Sports Bay Area.

Fehr pointed to record attendance, the competitive balance shown by six franchises winning the last six World Series and revenues that he said have risen from just over $2 billion in 1997 to nearly $4.7 billion in 2005.

"What that tells us is that the people who watch and appreciate major-league baseball think we are doing something right," he said. "A lot of the complaints about teams not making any money in baseball seem to be diminishing."

Fehr said he did not believe contentious issues such as a salary cap or contraction would be major issues this year, and the two sides have already agreed to a drug testing deal.

Since players first went on strike in 1972, baseball has never started a season after a deal expired with a new contract agreement unless there had been a spring-training lockout like in 1973, '79 and '90.

While there is ongoing communication between management and union officials, Fehr said no negotiations have begun on a new deal. He plans to visit with all 30 teams in spring training to get a better read on the issues important to the players and said the union is still studying the impact of the luxury tax and revenue-sharing agreements from the last contract.

The Yankees were hit with a $34 million luxury tax last season and the Red Sox had a $4 million bill. Under the labor contract, the Yankees and Red Sox will be the only teams subject to the luxury tax this season and both will pay at a 40 percent rate on the amount over the $136.5 million threshold for all players on 40-man rosters, including benefits.

Fehr said he is concerned that some teams that are receiving payments from baseball's central fund might be making more money than teams that are putting money into it. He also wants to make sure teams are using the money on player salaries.

"There are teams in major-league baseball that receive more money from central baseball from the national television contract and revenue sharing than they spend on payrolls," he said. "That's before they sell a ticket or a hot dog or a beer or a parking space.

"We have to be concerned about the incentives of the system," he said. "So what we will be investigating as we get into bargaining is what are the results of this? Are they positive or negative?"

Fehr said he's excited about the upcoming World Baseball Classic, predicting the intensity of the event will be "extraordinary" even though some big-name players such as Barry Bonds will not be participating.

But he was distressed by the decision Thursday by the International Olympic Committee to reject a move to reinstate baseball and softball for the 2012 Olympics. The sports, which will participate in 2008, were voted out seven months ago for the Olympics in London.

"In my judgment, the reason the vote was taken is a simple one: Baseball and softball are not European sports," Fehr said. "The Olympics are Euro-centric and Euro-dominated. I don't think there's
much more to it than that."

Fehr said the decision would affect funding and development for baseball in places such as Europe and South Africa but would have little impact in the Americas and the Pacific Rim.

Fehr also predicted that baseball would eventually return to the Olympics, after officials see the success of the World Baseball Classic.

"If over time the World Baseball Classic works the way we hope it will, I think the next time there is a discussion it will be the IOC asking us to come back," Fehr said.