NEW YORK -- All the drama in baseball this season hasn't been confined to the field.
Some of the toughest pitches are being hurled across Manhattan conference rooms, where owners are demanding economic changes that could spark the game's ninth work stoppage since 1972.
And it could come to this: No World Series for the second time in nine years.
Players are likely to set a strike date when their executive board meets Monday, possibly leading to a walkout in late August or early September. The key stumbling block appears to be management's demand to slow escalating player salaries -- a luxury tax on teams with high payrolls.
''Eventually, it all has to be tied together,'' said Atlanta pitcher Tom Glavine, the National League player representative. ''There's caution on our side because obviously the big issues -- revenue sharing and luxury tax -- are out there. Those can set the negotiations in motion quickly in one direction or the other.''
Finding a way to slow salaries has been a perennial management goal long before Bud Selig became commissioner in 1998. Players, however, would like keep things the way they are. Since 1976, the last season before free agency, the average salary has jumped from $51,500 to $2.38 million, a 46-fold increase.
Selig said it has reached the point where only the richest teams can compete. He thinks revenue-sharing -- taking from the biggest clubs and giving to the smaller ones, like his family-owned Milwaukee Brewers -- is the only way to restore competitive balance.
''The system is so, in my judgment, badly flawed, it's going to take a myriad of solutions,'' Selig said earlier this month.
One owner who sticks up for big-market clubs is George Steinbrenner, whose New York Yankees' payroll is $135 million. He doesn't think they should have to subsidize smaller teams.
Steinbrenner also thinks profit-sharing should be used to raise payrolls, not help teams rack up profits. But he's not certain how much his opinion counts these days.
''Bud Selig and I have been friends for a long time. I'm not sure how much he relies on me anymore,'' Steinbrenner said in an interview published Sunday in The New York Times. ''I don't know. He kind of has his allies, and most of them are small-market guys.''
There seemed to be some progress in negotiations the past week, with players ending their decades-old opposition to mandatory drug testing and agreeing to be tested for illegal steroids starting next year.
Players also are amenable to increasing the amount of local revenue teams share. But they oppose the luxury tax, which could force high-spending clubs to trim tens of millions of dollars from payrolls.
''We don't consider players to be a luxury,'' union head Donald Fehr said.
The union doesn't want to leave itself open to a lockout, which would delay a confrontation until next spring, when owners have less money at stake. That's why a strike date probably will be set.
''The simple fact that we haven't set a date yet shows how much we understand it will affect the game and the fans,'' New York Yankees reliever Mike Stanton said. ''But we don't want the fact that we haven't set a date to be seen as some sign of weakness. We'll do what we have to do.''
Arizona pitcher Brian Anderson said part of the reason to set a strike date is to spur negotiations.
''It's like anything else in life -- you talk about getting your car washed, and you procrastinate and procrastinate all week long,'' he said. ''We all do it. But all of a sudden, if your car has to be in a car show on Saturday, you go get it washed, because there's a deadline, and that is the purpose of setting a strike date.''
Monday's meeting in Chicago takes place on the anniversary of the 232-day strike in 1994 that led to the cancellation of the World Series for the first time since 1904.
But a big difference this time is that both sides have had dozens of bargaining sessions in recent weeks and have narrowed their differences. Nine years ago, when owners demanded a fixed ceiling on salaries known as a cap, the first substantive talks didn't take place until three months after the walkout.
''There's good reason to be optimistic at this point,'' said former pitcher David Cone, a key member of the players' negotiating team during the last walkout. ''The framework's there for an agreement, unlike last time.''
The last strike wiped out the final 52 days and 669 games of the regular season and forced cancellation of the first 23 days and 252 games of the following season. It ended only after a federal judge issued an injunction restoring the terms of the former labor contract, ruling owners had illegally changed work rules.
Baseball, buoyed by the opening of 13 new major league ballparks since 1990, has boomed. Revenue nearly doubled since the last strike, from $1.87 billion in 1993 to $3.55 billion last year. But Selig says the 30 teams combined for $232 million in operating losses last year, figures questioned by some in Congress and even by New York Mets co-owner Nelson Doubleday.
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