NEW YORK -- Baseball commissioner Bud Selig pledged Tuesday not to lock out players through the World Series but left open the chance that owners would impose new work rules during the offseason, a move that could trigger another strike this summer.
The players' union, operating without a labor contract since Nov. 7, quickly interpreted Selig's statement as a veiled threat to impose vast economic changes as soon as the postseason ends.
In 1994, the union struck on Aug. 12, saying the move was its only recourse to fight management's plan to implement changes, including a salary cap. The walkout, baseball's eighth since 1972, lasted 232 days and caused the World Series to be canceled for the first time since 1904.
Union head Donald Fehr called Selig's statement ''a tacit acknowledgment of the clubs' continuing intention'' to make changes after the World Series.
''He thinks what we do not: that the fans can be more easily fooled, fooled into thinking this 'pledge' is a concession of sorts on his part,'' Fehr said.
Selig said for months that a lockout was not ''on my radar screen,'' but he had refused to rule one out. His promise not to impose new terms and conditions of employment for players through the end of the World Series bore little significance because players already have signed their 2002 contracts.
A rules change in the offseason would affect new contracts signed for 2003 and beyond.
''Our fans deserve to know that the 2002 season will be played to completion without interruption and they deserve to know that now before we begin the new season,'' Selig said. ''Therefore, on behalf of the clubs, I pledge that we will not take any economic action either in the form of a lockout or unilateral implementation against the players' association throughout the course of the season and postseason.
''The sanctity of the season, however, is only partially within my control. Since we do not have a new collective bargaining agreement, the players have the right to strike at any time. I sincerely hope that they share my strong feeling about the importance of playing the entire season.''
Asked why he made the announcement Tuesday, Selig said during a telephone interview: ''I thought the timing was good. In my judgment, this way was a very good way to reassure fans.''
Fehr did not say whether players would make a similar no-strike pledge, and history suggests they won't.
''All I can say, the players setting a strike date is always a last resort,'' Fehr said.
Negotiations for a new labor contract have been slow, at first delayed by the owners' failed attempt to eliminate the Minnesota Twins and Montreal Expos. Talks, which recessed March 13, are to resume next week but the sides are far apart.
The union also fears that owners could lock out players following the World Series or stop negotiating player contracts, a strategy the NBA used after its 1998 playoffs. Baseball's outside counsel is Howard Ganz, the NBA's outside lawyer during the lockout.
''He specifically limited the pledge to the season and postseason, reserving for himself the right to kick off the same strategy the NBA did,'' Fehr said in Tampa, Fla., after talking to the New York Yankees, the final stop on his tour of the 30 spring-training camps.
During the strike, owners implemented a salary cap on Dec. 23, 1994. However, the players' association filed an unfair labor practice charge, the National Labor Relations Board issued a complaint and on March 31, 1995, a federal judge ordered owners to restore the old work rules, which caused players to end their strike.
Negotiations resumed and the sides signed a new contract on March 14, 1997.
Owners say baseball is losing hundreds of millions of dollars annually and has a competitive-balance problem. They have proposed a vast increase in revenue sharing and a 50 percent luxury tax on the portions of payrolls above $98 million.
Players are skeptical of management's claims of losses and haven't agreed that competitive balance is a problem. The union doesn't want to drain the high-revenue teams of money they would otherwise spend on salaries, and it has no interest in a luxury tax that would slow the increase in salaries.
''The inability of the clubs and the players' association to reach closure on a new basic agreement that would resolve the basic inequity of competitive imbalance that exists in our game today should not, I believe, be a burden borne by our fans,'' Selig said.
Yankees pitcher Mike Stanton said players would strike if they think it's necessary.
''If we were pushed to it, we've proved in the past it's not just a threat,'' he said.
New York Mets pitcher Al Leiter said he hoped Selig's announcement ''will lead to an agreement sooner rather than later.''
''It is encouraging, and it's a positive gesture to the great fans of this game,'' Leiter said in Port St. Lucie, Fla.
Management said the union was giving dark meanings to the announcement that were unintended.
''I agree with Mr. Leiter's comment that the statement of the commissioner should be taken as a positive sign with respect to our desire to preserve the season for the fans,'' said Rob Manfred, the owners' chief labor lawyer.
''Unfortunately, Mr. Fehr apparently believes that what was a unilateral extension of that olive branch should somehow be misinterpreted as a threat to he and his members.''
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