Settlement talks collapse, contraction grievance resumes

Friday, December 14th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) _ Baseball players and owners are back to normal: squabbling and litigating.

Talks collapsed on the proposed deal between players and owners that would delay the elimination of major league teams until after the 2002 season.

The sides were close to agreement on a deal Monday that would ensure two teams _ most likely Minnesota and Montreal _ would not be folded before next season.

But three days of talks failed to resolve what appeared to be small issues separating the sides. The union's grievance to block contraction was reinstated Thursday before arbitrator Shyam Das.

In the meantime, an injunction in Minnesota forces the Twins to play next season, and the owners' appeal won't be heard until Dec. 27 _ meaning there's still no schedule and no team can put individual game tickets on sale.

Each side blamed the other for the failure of the talks.

``We wanted them to acknowledge that we have the right to contract,'' Rob Manfred, management's top labor lawyer, said. ``They just got too narrow. We felt they were limiting our rights as to when and how we can contract. We felt we were better off litigating the issue.''

Under the deal, owners would have had to inform the union by July 1, 2002, if they were eliminating teams for 2003 and what teams would fold.

On Wednesday, management proposed that if owners chose which teams they wanted to eliminate in 2003 and then failed to get rid of them, owners would be allowed to try to fold franchises in 2004 and also pick different clubs to drop if they wanted to.

The union also objected to management's proposal to keep part of the settlement secret.

``The structure of the proposed agreement was always that the clubs would not contract for 2002, and that if the clubs wished to pursue contraction for 2003, they would do so based on an agreed upon timetable consistent with the Basic Agreement,'' union head Donald Fehr said. ``In return, the players' association agreed that if these procedures were followed, the players' association would forgo certain legal arguments it might have to stop contraction in 2003, while reserving others.''

Manfred said his side's proposals were reasonable.

``This negotiation was about both sides adding new issues as we went along,'' he said. ``It was that type of negotiation.''

Owners are worried that they might run out of time to fold teams in 2003 because of potential court proceedings, such as the one in Minnesota currently forcing the Twins to play next season.

Players are concerned that if the teams to be folded are changed, it could alter revenue sharing. They also worry that the lack of a deadline for a final contraction decision would leave them with no recourse, such as a strike.

Rep. John Conyers Jr., the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, criticized owners.

``This is a real strikeout for the fans, players and cities involved,'' the Michigan congressman said. ``This is bad news for the citizens of Minnesota and every other franchise that won't agree to the owners' demands. This is all the more reason to repeal baseball's antitrust exemption _ and the sooner the better.''

Owners began their cross examination Thursday of Gene Orza, the union's No. 2 official, who opened the hearing last week with two days of testimony in Irving, Texas.

Das waited three days while lawyers tried to work out their differences.

``Throughout these negotiations, the players' association tried to limit our basic right by imposing limitations that we felt were not within their purview,'' said Paul Beeston, baseball's chief operating officer. ``We will continue with our plans to contract two clubs for the 2002 season and resume negotiations with the players' association on the effects of contraction.''

Owners want the union to acknowledge management unilaterally has the right to fold franchises. Owners say they would bargain over the effects of contraction, such as a dispersal draft of players.

Commissioner Bud Selig's plan to fold franchises was put on hold by the Minnesota courts, which issued an injunction Nov. 16 that forces the Twins to play next year at the Metrodome. Baseball's lawyers failed to get an accelerated review by Minnesota's Supreme Court, and the injunction remains in force until the hearing before the Minnesota Court of Appeals.

The Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission, which operates the Metrodome, asked the appeals court Thursday to let the injunction stand. Major league baseball ``has been sending teams to Minnesota for 41 years; it can, with no disruption, and indeed consistent with the status quo, continue to do so for another year while this case is tried,'' the commission's lawyers wrote.