Angered by owners' refusal to make a pension payment of about $7.8 million, the executive board of the players' association meets today to consider changing the union's Aug. 12 strike deadline.
"It could be tomorrow. It could be on the 12th. It could be after," Los Angeles Dodgers player representative Brett Butler said Wednesday night as talk of an imminent walkout swept through major league ballparks.Union head Donald Fehr and his staff were incensed during a contentious 21/2-hour bargaining session. Players were angry, too, after owners failed to make the Aug. 1 payment, about one seventh of the $57 million annual contribution under the deal that expired March 19.
"They're upset. There's a great deal of dissatisfaction," Kansas City Royals player representative Jeff Montgomery said, adding that some of his teammates favored an immediate walkout.
"If you would ask the players, they'd be willing to do it tonight," he said.
Eugene Orza, the union's associate general counsel, said the executive board would convene by telephone conference call to discuss what he called "the dastardly deed." Players say they are owed the money because they appeared in the All-Star game last month, but some wondered whether the deadline could be changed.
"I'm not sure if it could be orchestrated in such a short period of time," Paul Molitor of the Toronto Blue Jays said.
During a White House news conference Wednesday night, President Clinton said the government could get involved in the tense talks but he wanted to be cautious.
"I think it would be heartbreaking for the American people if our national pastime didn't get through this whole season," he said. "There may be some other things which can be done, but at this time the situation is sufficiently delicate that I think we need to leave it at that. ... If we can play a constructive role, we will."
Clinton said he hopes there isn't a work stoppage, which would be baseball's eighth in 22 years.
"I mean, the prospect of seeing records that are 30 and 40 years old broken for those of us who like the offensive as well as the defensive side of baseball - I mean this is an exhilarating thing," he said. "And it's a great opportunity for these young players and what they can become."
Atlanta Braves present at the bargaining session didn't mince words. One lawyer in the union said some players used profanity as they attacked management.
Union head Donald Fehr threatened a lawsuit over the owners' failure to make the pension payment. He called owners silly, chided them for their "cavalier attitude" and labeled the pension decision "a cheap shot" that was "below the belt."
The sides spent little time discussing management's insistence on a salary cap, which Fehr said players will never accept.
"There's a better chance of the United States returning to a monarchy," Tom Reich, an agent for many players, said at a news conference in Pittsburgh.
Union lawyers intended to present their economic analysis of revenue sharing today, and full negotiating teams probably will meet again Friday, according to lawyers involved in the talks.
Management negotiator Richard Ravitch insisted that owners would never accept an agreement that doesn't give them cost certainty.
"We have a right, a fundamental right, to bargain for our cost of labor," he said.
Executive council chairman Bud Selig and Ravitch say 19 clubs project they will lose money this year. The Los Angeles Times, quoting a lawyer close to the talks, reported Wednesday that two of the clubs are the Los Angeles Dodgers and Chicago White Sox. The New York Daily news reported the Mets are on the list, too.
Fehr said owners won't release the list of projected money losers because of public reaction.
"No one would take the notion of poverty seriously," he said. "You all would fall on the floor laughing."
Ravitch said the union should have expected that owners wouldn't make the pension payment since the benefit agreement expired March 19.
"I'm unaware of any situation where an employer makes a payment and he's not contractually obligated to do so during the course of collective bargaining," he said.
"This was a cheap shot, and a blind one, and was intended that way," Fehr wrote to Ravitch in a letter the union made public. "Why the players would want to be `partners' with people who do that is beyond imagination."