Commentary: The Umps Were An Easy Out. The Players Won't Be

The rap on Bud Selig before he became commissioner of Major League Baseball was that he didn't have the backbone to preside over the squabbling Lords of the Game and the spoiled millionaires in the dugout. They didn't call him "Bud lite" for nothing.

Now, Selig's role in squashing a revolt of MLB umpires is giving a lot of people in baseball reason to reassess the commish. From the owners' standpoint, Selig pushed all the right buttons. In July, about 50 umps resigned, effective Sept. 2. They were attempting to pressure the owners into early contract negotiations just before the post-season--but Bud refused to be bullied. Within two weeks, all were crawling back for their jobs and Selig had made a mockery of Major League Umpires Assn. chief Richie Phillips and his ill-fated strategy. For some umpires, the about-face came too late, though. Baseball replaced 22 of them with new hires. Barring the unlikely, their careers as big-league umps were scheduled to end on the date they selected.

NEW LINEUP. How sweet it must be for the owners, who have a history of getting beaten at the bargaining table. In fact, Phillips has bested baseball several times--most notably by blocking the ouster of umps who got poor evaluations. And the players have clobbered owners in every round of bargaining since the dawn of free agency.

But a lot has changed in baseball's executive suites since the disastrous 1994 lockout that wiped out a thrilling pennant race and, for the first time, canceled a World Series. Selig has settled in as permanent commissioner and has assembled a roster that includes Chief Operating Officer Paul Beeston and Executive Vice-President for baseball operations Sandy Alderson. Both are widely respected front-office veterans.

Along with Rob Manfred, MLB's labor-relations lawyer, this is the lineup that has made Phillips look like a rookie. It's the same team that will negotiate with the Major League Baseball Players Assn. The current deal between owners and players runs through the 2000 season, with a players' option for continuing it through the 2001 season.

Of course, the players, with immeasurably more leverage than the umps, won't be so easily outmaneuvered. And odds are they won't commit as unpardonable an error as Phillips did with his resignation strategy. The disarray within the union over resigning made it easy for owners to turn a deaf ear to perhaps legitimate demands, including higher pay and harsher treatment for players who mistreat umpires. "This is a negotiation I think my 10-year-old son and I could have handled," says Rodney D. Fort, an economics professor at Washington State University and author of Hardball: The Abuse of Power in Pro Team Sports.

It's early, but some things seem to be going right in talks between owners and player reps. After meetings between Beeston and union chief Donald M. Fehr, the two all but admitted to liking each other. On several issues of late, including the first visit by a major-league team to Cuba in 40 years, MLB and the players' union worked together without a hitch.

Behind such small gestures, though, old differences remain. Owners continue to fret that the widening gap between free-spending, big-market teams and small-market, cash-strapped clubs will destroy any competitive balance and alienate fans. Owners would love to impose a strict salary cap like the one the National Basketball Assn. negotiated this year. Ballplayers continue to maintain that the owners' miseries are mostly self-inflicted. Aggressive revenue sharing would close the money gap overnight, they say, but owners of rich teams have resisted such socialistic solutions for years.

For now, there's little chance of players accepting a salary cap. Led by the tenacious Fehr, they've fought off cap proposals of every stripe. In the last negotiation, they did accept a milder salary-restraint system--a payroll tax assessed against the highest-spending clubs--but even that expires before the present agreement ends.

So while getting the umpires to knuckle under is a start for Selig & Co., it's just spring training. Let's see how Team Bud does when the players' union is at the plate. That's when the real season begins.

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