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Are Baseball's Players Getting Caught In A Rundown?

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Baseball hasn't been a pretty sight since the strike began in mid-August--nothing but empty stadiums, angry players, and stone-faced owners. Now, things could get truly ugly. With the '94 season dead, it's increasingly likely the standoff will drag on into the spring. If that happens, Major League Baseball will have to sell tickets for a season that may never happen. And many players won't know which club they'll be suiting up for--or even if they'll have a spot in The Show.

Amid all the confusion, however, it seems clear that the balance of power is tipping away from the players. The union has won all seven labor disputes of the past two decades, but it has never ended a season on strike. Come October, more than 200 senior players will be free to sell their services to the highest-bidding teams. The union will want them to sit tight until a new pact is signed. But owners will insist that anyone who doesn't snap up what's offered could miss the best deal if MLB prevails in the end. That's a situation players never had to face before, and it could put a tremendous strain on the union's unified front. "The relative amounts of pressure will shift away from owners to players," says Gary R. Roberts, a Tulane University law professor who's an expert on sports labor.

NIGHTMARE. Of course, the owners face a mess of problems, too. The 200-odd players due to become free agents will be eligible to switch teams. Usually, many would have sorted out their new deals by yearend, leaving clubs able to promote ticket sales with their names and run national and local television ads adorned with their faces. Owners will face a nightmarish marketing task if it isn't clear who's on first (and second and third) at each team--or whether they'll play ball at all.

Making a salary cap work during a strike could be even more daunting. With this season over, the owners can impose their last contract offer, under which the total of all player salaries would not exceed 50% of total baseball revenues. Each team then would have four years to bring payrolls to 50% of the sport's average. But without knowing which free agents are staying put, some clubs could face tough decisions. For instance, the Atlanta Braves dished out $52 million in salaries this year, vs. an MLB average of $36 million. To meet the cap, "they probably couldn't keep players like Steve Avery," a Braves pitcher who earned $2.8 million this season, says Scott Boras, Avery's agent.

Owners must also keep an eye on Washington. Representative Jack Brooks (D-Tex.) has scheduled a Sept. 22 hearing to look again at repealing Major League Baseball's antitrust exemption--which would open the way for a suit by the union against the salary cap. Although the owners have won this battle in the past, public anger over another lost season could stiffen congressional attitudes.

The ballplayers could face even worse dilemmas. They've been able to hang tough in the past in part because they collect a paycheck twice a month from Opening Day on. So when the union calls a strike in midseason, as it did this year, players already have earned the bulk of their annual salary. The owners, by contrast, get the biggest chunk of their revenue from the league championship playoffs and World Series. So they stand to lose more, proportionately, as the season slips away. The situation will reverse next year, though, when owners will face little pain early on and players will forgo pay right off the bat.

The union's biggest test will be how to handle the new crop of free agents. In past disputes, players' individual salary contracts were never immediately at issue. The reason: The two sides always reached agreement before the season ended. This year, however, some free agents could lose if they stick with the union while their colleagues buckle. If some stars sign deals that put a team over the salary limit, that team couldn't sign another expensive player. So a player who held back could be forced to seek work elsewhere.

"The pressures on free agents to sign are enormous as they watch a very short career go by," says Marvin Miller, former head of the Major League Baseball Players Assn. "But I still don't think anyone will cross the picket line." Agrees Boras: "I don't believe any player would sign" under a salary cap.

Given the likelihood of such a muddle, the two sides may well come to terms in time to salvage next season. That would probably have to happen by November, negotiators say. "Both parties face enormous uncertainties, which gives them a tremendous interest in trying to settle this," says Richard Ravitch, the owners' chief negotiator. If baseball remains in warring camps through the winter, however, bringing peace to the national pastime will be ever more complicated come spring.Aaron Bernstein in New York, with bureau reports

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