When baseball spring training finally got under way last week, more than a fortnight late because of the labor dispute between the players and owners, it seemed almost as if all the acrimony of the past month had never existed, as if these were the good old days. Clusters of players goofed off in the outfield, while the hitters bombed the pitchers, who were not yet ready to throw curves. The palm trees fluttered against the ever-blue Florida and Arizona skies, and the fans leaning against the fences were talking about how cold it was back home in Detroit or Chicago or Milwaukee. And hoping, of course, that it would get colder.
At the Mets' camp in St. Petersburg, Fla., Joe Torre and Ed Kranepool hovered around first base, the position each hopes to occupy this year. A coach was hitting ground balls to them that ended up bouncing off their knees, shins, thighs and chests. Occasionally one of the grounders would stick in a glove. "First guy to catch three in a row gets the job," kidded Torre. Countered Kranepool, "My hands are O.K. It's just gettin' them to work together."
Over at the Red Sox camp in Winter Haven, Third Baseman Rico Petrocelli asked after the first practice, "When are we getting a day off?" And Utility Infielder Bob Heise said, "This is enough practice. Let's start the games."
Indeed, the games will start—exhibitions this week, the season as scheduled on April 8. And this is a welcome report after the spate of news about players unwilling to budge much in the negotiations and owners too proud to say uncle.
March 29, 1976
But somehow the good humor of the athletes and the good-to-see-you-how-was-your-winter greetings from management seemed a bit forced. Joe McDonald, general manager of the Mets, was candid. "There's a lot of uneasiness," he said. "You can't feel content after what's happened. You just don't have the same enthusiasm."
What happened was that the players and owners could not agree on what to do about the Big Bugaboo, the reserve clause. Baseball management historically has viewed the clause as giving a team the exclusive rights to a player for life. In the past two months two federal courts have ruled that a team can have the rights to a player for only one year (the so-called option year) beyond the term of his contract. The law notwithstanding, the owners persisted in arguing until recently that they must have control of players for life in order to keep salaries and expenses from going too high and to preserve competitive balance. Implicit in their position was the opinion: we are the owners, and we know what is best for baseball. The players answered by saying that slavery has a bad odor about it these days.
Early last week Commissioner Bowie Kuhn announced that if' 'sufficient progress" was made in the negotiations, he would order the camps opened. Less than 72 hours later he lamented, "We do not have a final agreement," but he nevertheless directed the owners to unlock the gates to the players, who had been anxious to play all along. Having done so, Kuhn immediately went into hiding and refused to discuss his decision. That was strange, because the players and owners generally—though certainly not unanimously—supported Kuhn.
The bottleneck in negotiations is this: courts up to but not including the Supreme Court have agreed that a player should be free to play out his contract and become a free agent. This means he would be at liberty to sell his services to anyone he chooses, just as people in other lines of work do. But the owners still want players to be reserved, somehow, to a particular team for at least eight years. And they want limits on which and how many of the 24 teams a player can offer himself to when he becomes a free agent. And they want to implement a complicated formula that would provide compensation money to the team losing the player. And they want lots of other controls.
Marvin Miller, executive director of the Players Association, fretted that for him to agree to abridge rights the players have won in court would subject both him and his union to untold liability (read that as substantial financial penalties) in the event a player sued to regain those rights. But the Players Association does agree in principle with some of the controls being sought by the owners—it offered a plan in which a player would be tied to a team for six seasons—and Miller even concedes that the liability issue might be finessed. Thus, it is the specifics of the settlement, not its essentials, that are causing trouble.
Whatever happens, no player will become a free agent before the end of the upcoming season. So with eminent logic, Kuhn told all parties to play ball now and work out a deal before October. A spokesman for a public-relations firm hired to shine up management's image in these troubled times insisted, "I can assure you that the commissioner acted on his own with no pressure from the owners or anyone else."
That sounds plausible, but it may not be quite true. According to high management sources, Kuhn acted only when "he saw baseball's tide going out." That occurred when owners of at least four clubs privately indicated that, rather than operate under the new court rulings, they were prepared to padlock their stadiums this summer and let the fans watch Lassie reruns instead of baseball. The four reportedly were St. Louis, Detroit, San Diego and California. Even though the threat was lessened when two key teams, Los Angeles and the Mets, proved reluctant to take such a drastic step, Kuhn obviously was not keen on it.
Whatever his motivation, Kuhn's action was timely because the owners last week had backed themselves all the way into the right-field corner by hurling down what they called their "best and final" offer. Then Chief Negotiator John Gaherin and his entourage promptly flew back to New York without waiting for an answer from the players. This was evidence anew in support of the observation by Cal Tech Professor Roger Noll, editor of a respected book on the business complexities of sports: "Baseball always seems to defend itself in the most arrogant way possible."
When Miller and the players looked over the' 'best and final" offer, they could not talk for laughing—or fuming—mainly because it was full of provisions that diminished the rights they had recently won. The players ignored the offer and suggested that negotiations continue (perhaps with the help of federal mediation) and that training camps be opened immediately. Kuhn agreed.
How much does all this affect teams in preparing for the season? Not much. The conventional wisdom is that pitchers need at least three weeks to get ready—and they will have it. Everybody else needs only a week or two.
A team such as Cincinnati, which has a set lineup, faces few problems. Stung a bit by the shorter spring will be clubs that are going to rely on young, untested players, and teams with new managers.
One adjustment many clubs may make will be to carry more pitchers during the early season. Boston Manager Darrell Johnson said that instead of bringing nine pitchers north, he will take at least 12. The delay also means that younger players, with the possible exception of pitchers, will get even less of a chance to make the big club.
The effect of the delay on all teams is likely to be more psychological than physical. If negotiations drag on through the season, even more bitter animosities could surface, partly because negotiators tend to say a lot of things during bargaining sessions they do not really mean. One baseball executive contends, "The important thing for management to remember is you can't knock your product [the players] and try to sell it at the same time."
On the day the camps opened, about 150 of baseball's 600 big-league players had not signed contracts. Last year at the same time, there were about 10. But Jerry Kapstein, an attorney who represents about 60 players, expects most of the 150 will sign with their present clubs before the season ends, regardless of how the negotiations go.
Cincinnati President Bob Howsam says, "The most important thing is to get some stability in this game." The Mets' McDonald adds, "Maybe a calmer atmosphere will lead to a more fruitful agreement." And that might be the best result of all from last week's decision to play ball.