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Owners have no power

Posted: Friday, August 09, 2002

All that's left to negotiate are the terms of surrender. The owners have no sticks left, just carrots.

Without a fight, and with more common sense than anyone gave them credit for, major league ballplayers said ''yes'' to steroid testing. If you want to know why baseball players have won every important fight with management for the last 25 years, Wednesday's concession by the union is as good a place as any to start.

Baseball players have almost nothing in common with working stiffs, but their union is the envy of every local in the world. It has unity and discipline and, just as important, enough cash to cover the cost of such high-minded principles.

With one voice, the players turned their biggest flaw into a strength. With a single maneuver, they sidestepped a messy public-relations puddle, disarmed an increasingly skeptical public and nearly reduced hardened management types to tears.

''Very significant,'' is how Rob Manfred, the owners' chief negotiator, greeted the news.

Manfred was on MLB's legal team for the 1990 lockout and the 1994 strike, and he's not a guy who melts easily.

''I think the tenor and general state of the discussions that have taken place in the last week and a half are far better than anything we've ever had,'' he said.

So now it's back to arguing over money.

And while most of us have no sympathy for either dog in that fight, we know how it's likely to turn out.

The owners will cave.

Not tomorrow or the next day, maybe not even the first day the ballplayers are out on strike. Truth is, it could be a few days before anybody in commissioner Bud Selig's Milwaukee office even notices.

League-wide attendance is down by 5 percent, and nowhere has the drop been more precipitous than at year-old Miller Park, where the Selig family-owned Brewers have been playing to more and more empty seats.

At some point, even Selig will figure out the ballpark is completely empty. And that all those flashing lights on his phone represent very rich, very angry men who own ballclubs that are hemorrhaging money.

And if Selig didn't need the paycheck, he'd tell the owners who plucked him from their ranks and put him in charge -- at least nominally -- that those huge operating losses are the price they pay for anarchy.

They didn't want anybody telling them what to do, so they all went ahead and behaved as though the best interests of baseball dovetailed with their own. Because the cost of doing business has soared, the infighting that used to take place behind closed doors is spilling out of the boardroom and into the courtroom.

Things are so bad that right about now baseball would trade places with figure skating.

Fourteen of the Montreal Expos' former minority owners are suing Selig for helping pal Jeff Loria buy the team for $12 million and sell it for $120 million just two years later so he could buy another failing franchise in Miami.

New York Mets co-owner Nelson Doubleday has opened a second front. He accuses Selig of using trumped-up numbers to help co-owner Fred Wilpon cheat Doubleday out of a similarly generous price for his piece of the team.

And just as distressing for the owners as the timing of the lawsuits is the weakness in their ranks. Anybody who thought Selig could put together a coalition to stand up to the players knows better now.

The owners' wants are pulling them in different directions. The struggling franchises will collapse if business goes on as usual; the profitable ones refuse to close up long enough to get the kind of cost certainty that the NFL, NBA and even NHL secured at a dear price.

The players know that. It explains the gift of steroid testing without demanding anything from the owners in return. Soon, all the other subsidiary issues will be off the table and only the luxury tax will remain.

With a salary cap no longer part of the discussion, the owners have plotted and hoped that the luxury tax will give them cost containment similar to other sports leagues.

The players know that, too, and they're as likely to go along with it as they are to bail out failing Latin American economies.

They could afford it, certainly.

But agree to it?

Not as long as they have all the leverage. If the owners haven't begun capitulating fast enough for union boss Donald Fehr, look for him to set a strike date when the union meets Monday in Chicago.

Unlike Selig, his constituents never, ever push back.

Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org



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