Peace at last. Across the land baseball players came charging—in some cases huffing and puffing—onto sunlit fields to ready body and mind for something they hadn't done in 50 days—play ball. Yes, Virginia, there is an All-Star Game, and it will be played on Sunday in Cleveland. And there will be more games, and a World Series. The specter of a nation without a pastime had been exorcised just in time.
It came down to a 2 p.m. meeting last Thursday at New York's Doral Inn. Or so it seemed. The baseball stoppage had been the longest in the game's history, and mayors, businessmen, a federal mediator, the National Labor Relations Board, the Secretary of Labor and public opinion had failed to halt it THIS IS IT screamed the headlines; settle the strike or forfeit the season. No one held out very much hope. Indeed, only mediator Ken Moffett, an unflappable, good-humored and, above all, enduring marathon runner, thought the meeting in Room 1706 was even worth scheduling.
Well, 2 p.m. passed, and no negotiators for the players or owners arrived. Had everyone finally picked up his ball and bat and gone home? Not at all. The key negotiators had been huddling for an hour at the offices of National League president Chub Feeney. The negotiating teams had been pared to the bare minimums, which, itself, is often a sign of serious bargaining. Representing the owners were chief negotiator Ray Grebey and American League President Lee MacPhail; on hand for the athletes were Marvin Miller, executive director of the players' association, and his counsel, Don Fehr. They had elected, at Grebey's suggestion, to meet in secret away from the Doral. "When 2:15 came and nobody showed up at the Doral," said mediation service lawyer Nancy Broff, "we knew. It was 'Let's Make a Deal' time."
None of the principals remembers a single dramatic moment in which it became apparent that the strike was ending. Instead, they recall an atmosphere conducive to a settlement. Unlike the sterile meeting room in the Doral, Feeney's office is a harmonious place in which to conduct business. It has wood paneling, a view of the Rockefeller Center skating rink and a nostalgic photograph of a packed house at a Polo Grounds night game. With no table to separate them, the negotiators sat together, Miller on a couch, the others in chairs. The prospects of a settlement were further enhanced by the nature of the conversation. The player representatives, said MacPhail, were "businesslike." The owners' people, said Miller, "weren't playing word games."
August 9, 1981
These were 1981 baseball talks? Talks in which each side had accused the other of negotiating in bad faith, of lying or distorting the facts, and other high crimes and misdemeanors? Students of ancient history will recall that the discussions—rancorous and futile up to now—had started 20 months ago, when the owners proposed a controversial plan that would require a team signing a free agent to surrender a quality player from its own roster. Attachment Nine, it came to be called. A strike was averted in May of 1980 when the compensation issue was tabled. But on Feb. 19, 1981 the owners implemented their proposal, as was provided for in the 1980 agreement, and on Feb. 25 the players exercised their contractual right to set a strike date. After an initial postponement, they finally went out on June 12, and by last Thursday the two sides had never seemed more bitterly antagonistic.
After some 2½ hours of highly promising conversation, the negotiators adjourned to caucus. Miller and Fehr headed for the players' association offices on Sixth Avenue, where they huddled with associate counsel Peter Rose and player representatives Mark Belanger of Baltimore, Phil Garner of Pittsburgh and Steve Rogers of Montreal. The owners went to the National League's legal offices at the Citicorp Center to confer with Feeney, lawyers Barry Rona, Louis Hoynes and James Garner and the six front-office members of the Player Relations Committee's executive board.
The four principals met again in Feeney's office at around 6 p.m. They adjourned at 9 p.m.—MacPhail and Grebey to eat dinner with their attorneys and Miller and Fehr to return to the association office, where Bob Boone of Philadelphia and Doug DeCinces of Baltimore had joined the others. Around midnight everyone reconvened in the National League attorneys' offices. Shortly thereafter they reached an agreement in principle and at 5:30 a.m. a tentative agreement was signed. (Formal ratification by the players and owners was considered certain.) In a concession to the players, the owners accepted a compensation proposal that wouldn't unduly punish teams signing free agents and appeared to allow players to bargain freely. In deference to the owners, the players guaranteed three more years of peace by extending the Basic Agreement a year, until Dec. 31,1984. They also agreed to file for a dismissal of their NLRB suit which seeks to open the owners' books.
While contract language and other details were being worked out in the hours before the 5:30 signing, players and owners began to spread news of the settlement. Oakland President Roy Eisenhardt got a call from Minnesota Vice-President Clark Griffith at 11:28 p.m. Pacific Coast time. "I didn't even ask about compensation," Eisenhardt said afterward. "When you have a baby, you don't ask if it's a boy or girl, you're so happy." A few minutes later San Diego Shortstop Ozzie Smith heard from the players' side. "They told me, 'Everything is squared away,' " said Smith. "I was relieved and excited. This thing really got boring." By the time Miller and Grebey reported to the Doral's Crystal Ballroom at approximately 6 a.m. to announce the settlement, it was old news. So old that Grebey could be photographed holding aloft a late edition of the New York Daily News. The front-page headline read PLAY BALL!
Why did the players and owners settle? Because they had to. Even after collecting a reported $44 million worth of strike insurance, the owners have lost an estimated $72 million in tickets, concessions and broadcast revenues forfeited for 713 canceled games. For their part, the players dropped $28 million in salaries during the seven-week strike. "There was great worry that we might not only lose the 1981 season but jeopardize 1982 as well," said Belanger, the American League pension rep.
Only by settling immediately could baseball salvage a respectable season of as many as 111 games. There were other pressures as well. The 22 U.S. cities with major league teams had lost about $10 million in tax income and hundreds of millions more indirectly. And—Lord have mercy—the professional football exhibition season was starting with Saturday's Hall of Fame game. It's one thing to have hostile fans who follow baseball, another to have apathetic fans who don't give a damn. "No one seems to care about baseball," said a patron at a bar near Minnesota's Metropolitan Stadium. "The football pools are in, and that's what everyone's talking about."
Actually, the players and owners had nearly come to terms the week before. At Moffett's urging, Secretary of Labor Ray Donovan asked the parties to move the talks to Washington. With Donovan attending the four days of discussion at the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service offices, the antagonists were under the gun. "Donovan brought out our bottom line," said DeCinces. The players yielded to two owner demands: that 20% of all major-leaguers could qualify as "premium" free agents requiring professional compensation from the player-proposed pool, and that a team signing a free agent would provide at least one man from its 25-man roster to that pool. The owners had thus junked their long-standing demand for direct compensation, and had adopted a pool concept espoused by the players. The players and owners had never seemed closer together.
But the baseball strike, contrary to some reports, was never an easily negotiable matter of "how much?" It also involved principle. The players were dead set against compromising a free agent's bargaining power, mobility and salary potential. They felt the owners' latest proposal—that teams signing free agents could protect 24 men and non-signing teams 28—would punish teams signing free agents and consequently restrict player mobility.
In part because the owners refused to change the numbers, the Washington talks broke up in a familiar atmosphere of hostility and discord. According to one close observer, the owners stiffened after hearing reports that several players, notably L.A.'s Davey Lopes and Detroit's Dan Schatzeder, were critical of their bargainers. "The owners apparently thought it was their last chance to break the union," said DeCinces. "We were ready to settle when Miller walked out," retorted Grebey. Not so, said Moffett. "Grebey told me and Donovan that they were so far apart—Might-years,' he said—that there was no reason to settle."
As it happened, the players' fervor was revitalized by an act of management. Because the Washington talks had been conducted under a news blackout, many players had been getting their information from reports sent to them by the owners. Urged by DeCinces and Boone, the league player reps, Miller flew to Chicago on Monday and Los Angeles on Wednesday to brief players. The players emerged from their meetings united. "What I said was taken out of context," said Schatzeder. "I made a mistake," said Lopes.
While the players met in Los Angeles Wednesday, the owners held three meetings in New York—one for American League owners, one for National League and one for both. The hard-line approach that had characterized previous owners' meetings had plainly softened. According to one published report, Philadelphia's Ruly Carpenter rose at the joint meeting to advocate a tough stance and was shouted down. Other owners accused Carpenter, who has put the Phillies up for sale, of being a "lame duck." In the American League meeting eight clubs—New York, Baltimore, Cleveland, Texas, Chicago, Oakland, California and Seattle—are believed to have pushed for mandatory arbitration, an option previously offered by the players but rejected by the PRC. MacPhail, who had emerged as a key figure in the negotiations, talked them out of the arbitration idea by asserting that settlement was near. He had been holding private conversations with Miller. "I was a kind of messenger boy," says MacPhail. "Anything I did, I did with the knowledge and under the direction of Ray Grebey, and I turned over the information to him immediately afterward." But there would have been no meetings and no messages if Miller had been forced to deal exclusively with Grebey, a man whose word he distrusts.
By Thursday the owners were ready to bargain. Even hard-liner Ed Fitzgerald, chairman of the Brewers' board and the PRC, seemed to be softening his position. Says Milwaukee player rep Ted Simmons, "I felt there was hope when I heard Ed Fitzgerald say something like, 'It's time to get back to baseball.' " Feeling the time was right, Moffett called the parties together. Why? "The owners met, didn't they?" he said. "Check how much blood is on the rug."
The baseball agreement is loaded with trade-offs. The players lost no service time during the strike; without it such players as Ron Guidry, Jerry Mumphrey, Phil Garner, Mike Flanagan, Ken Griffey, Dave Collins and Bobby Grich would have had to wait until the fall of 1982 to become free agents. The owners substantially preserved their definition of premium free agents.
The settlement was also loaded with irony. Under its terms, a team that doesn't sign free agents can protect 26 players from compensation, not the 28 discussed in Washington, an apparent gain for the owners. But the players had actually sought it, because signing teams will protect 24. By leaving only two fewer players unprotected, the players felt the signing team wouldn't be unduly punished. And by acceding to the players' demand for pool compensation, the owners may have won greater competitive balance—a long-standing concern of theirs. Because teams are likely to protect minor-leaguers as well as major-leaguers, five or six players from a 25-man roster could be made available for compensation. Presumably, the better teams will lose them even if they aren't signing any new players—unless they are one of the five possible "conscientious objectors" who choose not to participate in a particular year.
Who "won" the settlement? The owners will get significant compensation for seven, eight or nine free agents a year, a take-away the players had fought. Even DeCinces admitted, "Anytime there's a give-back, you don't win."
But the players achieved a victory of another sort by holding firm in the face of a blatant attempt to vitiate their union. "They were more united at the end of the strike than the beginning," said Steve Greenberg, the son of Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg and an agent and lawyer who acted as occasional go-between during negotiations. "The owners felt the players wouldn't strike, and if they did, they would buckle under after missing their first paycheck. Even as recently as a couple of weeks ago Grebey confided in me, 'Marvin should never have agreed to Attachment Nine. The players won't stay out over it.' Grebey was wrong."
"The owners won't underestimate the players anymore," said Miller. "That's probably the most important thing to come out of the strike. If there was any victory, it was a victory for the spirit of the players."
A more prevalent feeling was that there were no victors at all. "We gained little other than solidarity," said Steve Rogers, the National League's pension rep. "We accepted to avert irreparable damage to the game." If that sounds surprising, listen to White Sox Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf: "I was all for giving up in the first place." His partner, club President Eddie Einhorn, feels for the fans. "Not only did we see anger," he said, "but more dangerously, we saw apathy. I was in Mexico during their strike last year, and attendance is now off 30%."
"I think the fans will stay away," said Kansas City's George Brett. "I would."
Some will. Last week one anonymous ticket holder went to the stadium of the world champion Phillies and said, "I'm trading all these things in: the games that weren't played because of the strike, the games that are going to be played but I'm not going to see because I'm sick of them. Call it my little blow for the fans. Goodby, season tickets."
But this may be the minority view. At the onset of the strike, fans were pouring into stadiums at a rate one million ahead of last year's pace; in the early aftermath of the settlement, they were stampeding ticket windows.
So on to the season—or what's left of it. Like the 1918 season, which was abridged nearly 10% because of World War I, and the 1972 campaign, which lost 13 days to a season-opening strike, 1981 may be known for its asterisks. Qualifications for league leadership will almost certainly be reduced, so stats will be kept in earnest. But what happens if someone hits .430 with 350 at bats or has an 0.99 earned run average with 110 innings pitched? Asterisk city, probably. Records for minimum performance (e.g., fewest bases on balls) won't be kept this year.
After an eight-day break for summer training, the All-Star Game will display the sport's best players in its largest stadium—"showing our best side," said Philadelphia's Carpenter—but the move hasn't met with universal approval. Not even in Cleveland. "What an utter farce," Hal Lebovitz wrote in The Plain Dealer. "To charge top prices for what has to be a charade, a workout, a non-contest is sinful. Talk about greed...."
When regular play resumes Monday Pete Rose will be seeking the one hit he needs to break Stan Musial's National League record. In St. Louis. And on national television. And wonder of wonders, San Diego owner Ray Kroc will let everyone in free on Reopening Day when the Padres host Atlanta. To hype fan interest, the owners were leaning last weekend toward a split-season format in which teams leading their divisions on June 12 would meet second-half winners in a best-of-five pre-playoff that could extend the season until Oct. 28, when even Commissioner Bowie Kuhn may wear an overcoat. If a division leader wins both halves, it would meet the second-best team in the mini-playoff.
Such a series might well portend a permanent wild-card playoff system, à la football. Baseball's contracts with ABC and NBC already give the owners the right to establish a third tier of postseason play. In the brave new world of baseball, the networks and clubs will grow richer, the season will last almost until November, mediocrity will be rewarded and the 162-game season will become twice as meaningless as basketball's 82-game and hockey's 80-game schedules.
San Francisco owner Bob Lurie was criticized when he defended the split-season concept on a call-in radio show last Friday night. Unfair, cried three listeners. The Dodgers could be cheated out of their rights, said one. A second-place team could win the World Series, said another. The season should continue uninterrupted, said the third, because remaining schedules favor some teams and penalize others.
But fewer than 24 hours after the settlement, most people were talking balls and strikes, not the strike. The real lesson of the walkout? You can shut baseball down, but you can't shut it out.