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Labor strife looms on horizon

Special to

August 25

What Bud Selig and Donald Fehr have done is to keep the issue in another room, like a stack of bills that you just can't bring yourself to pay. The 2001 season has been everything Selig and Fehr could have imagined, from Barry Bonds, Luis Gonzalez and Sammy Sosa to Ichiro and Bret Boone and the fact that half of baseball's 30 teams are still in playoff contention heading toward Labor Day.

Whoops, I did it again. There's that word. Labor.
If he wants to plead disaster, Selig has a tough sell to a public that has helped increase revenues by anywhere from 150 to 300 percent in the last six years, depending on who's counting.

No matter that Selig and Fehr have maintained their public silence; no matter that everyone believes executives Paul Beeston, Rob Manfred and the owners' negotiators have tried to lay the groundwork for a new Basic Agreement; the fact remains that the current agreement expires in barely more than two months and if there is no agreement ...

Under the boardwalks, that is what owners, general managers and players are talking about. Agents close to the Players Association insist that Beeston and Fehr thought they were making conceptual progress this week when Selig and some owners pulled back the reins. Several general managers believe Selig may request a one-year extension of the current agreement, allowing owners to deal with contraction and other problems that exist among themselves; after all, the root of what most owners claim is fiscal instability is their own doing. Congress did not pass a law insisting that Rangers owner Tom Hicks outbid all competitors by 250 percent in order to sign Alex Rodriguez, nor did the Massachusetts legislature enact legislation ordering the Yawkey Foundation to make Manny Ramirez the second-highest paid player in baseball with a deal that will still be in place for the 2008 Inaugural Ball.

Now, the union hasn't been told anything about a one-year extension, and if Selig tries to contract and rearrange franchises -- which many impartial economists believe is necessary -- without the advice and consent of the Players Association, we may be back to one winter word storm after another. If you don't believe the labor issue is out there, then why have so many teams decided not to add young players to their September rosters, fearing a labor stoppage that would keep them from playing next spring? Why is the 2002 payment in Mark Teixeira's four-year, $9.5 million contract with the Rangers worth only $250,000?

Since the first strike on March 31, 1972, owners have approached each negotiation with the promise they have made to one another this time around -- that this is their chance to make significant changes in a system they believe is flawed, and clearly tilted in labor's direction, as if any Wal-Mart executive wouldn't think any bilateral agreement is overly friendly to labor. Problem is, while Marvin Miller and Fehr have held the players' position through the years, the owners have gone on one kick after another, from collusion to pay-for-performance to a salary cap and from Ray Grebey to Richard Ravech to Beeston as negotiators. As the players have laid in their bunkers, the owners' constant moving target has left the union with deep skepticism about management's resolve and sincerity. John Delcos, the respected writer from the Journal News in suburban New York, wrote that he saw the first draft of the 2002 schedule and that it had Washington listed on it in place of Montreal.

The Economic Study Commission believes the system does require changes, and many of Selig's inner circle -- Houston's Drayton McLane, Kansas City's David Glass, Minnesota's Carl Pohlad, as well as Jerry Reinsdorf of the White Sox -- are regarded by the union as gentlemen whose Labor Day celebration includes a toast to Reagan's smashing of the air traffic controllers. Others close to Selig insist that he is not pulling the rug on Beeston the way his compatriots did on Randy Levine after the 1994 strike; that Selig believes that it's not necessary to get this done now; and that, if necessary, a signing freeze beginning Nov. 1 that lasts until there is an agreement -- say by mid-January -- would not do too much damage beyond just the marketing of the 2002 season.

There are problems, and perhaps if Montreal is no longer home of the Expos and owner Jeffrey Loria is allowed to purchase Tampa Bay, another team folds and a home can be found for John Henry's Florida Marlins and the Oakland Athletics, then the sport will make more sense. But without exhausting relocation possibilities and inviting union participation, can it be accomplished? Skeptics lead the Optimists 8-3 in the sixth.

If he wants to plead disaster, Selig has a tough sell to a public that has helped increase revenues by anywhere from 150 percent to 300 percent in the last six years, depending on who's counting. The notion that no small-market team thinks it has a chance in spring training has been punctured by the success of the A's, Phillies and Angels. The sport is exploding internationally. Does the disparity between the revenues of the Yankees and the A's always mean that, in the end, competence runs second to coin? Maybe, although the Yankees have been both rich and competent for a long time now.

It's difficult to protect owners from themselves. Take this past June draft. The commissioner's office tried to monitor and guide the signings in an attempt to slow down the bonuses given to players who have never played a day in the majors. In the end, Mark Prior got $10.5 million from the Cubs, Teixeira $9.5 million, and once again the players that waited were rewarded because the teams gave in. The Indians were one team that didn't give in. They gave their first pick, right-handed pitcher Dan Denham, $1.86 million as the 17th selection, and when their second first-round pick, righty Alan Horne (the 27th selection) insisted that he had to have more than Denham, they refused. The Indians felt that to reward Horne for not signing early and playing hardball would be a long-term business mistake, and stuck with their rewards to Denham and their sandwich picks -- right-hander J.D. Martin and outfielder Mike Conroy -- who signed within days of the draft.

But the Indians were the exception, and the union believes that if the clubs can't help themselves when it comes to amateurs, why should it save David Glass from Fred Wilpon?

So, while we debate Bonds vs. Gonzalez vs. Sosa for MVP, Johnson vs. Schilling vs. Maddux for Cy Young or prepare for seven Red Sox-Yankees games in 11 days or continue to wonder at the machine that is the Seattle Mariners, the storm gathers. With the All-Star Game scheduled for his spectacular park in Milwaukee next July, this could be Selig's finest hour. The problem is convincing so many diverse interests what finest will entail.

Keep an eye on these guys
The San Diego Padres are not going to bring up prospects Sean Burroughs, a third baseman, or right-handed pitcher Dennis Tankersley because neither has to be added to the 40-man roster this winter. The Padres are concerned about the labor stoppage and thus want to make sure Burroughs and Tankersley will be in spring training next February, be it major-league camp or minor-league camp. The White Sox are not going to bring up center fielder Joe Borchard, the Giants don't plan to call up right-handed pitcher Kurt Ainsworth and the Devil Rays don't anticipate bringing up center fielder Carl Crawford for the same reason.

Oakland had resisted adding lefty Mario Ramos to the roster after only two years' experience, but after he took a no-hitter into the eighth for Triple-A Sacramento on Thursday -- in front of director of player personnel J.P. Ricciardi -- and upped his professional record to 30-9, his status remains under consideration because the A's are locked in a tough wild-card race with the Red Sox, Yankees and Angels.

There are, however, some players to watch:

  • Florida right-handed pitcher Josh Beckett. With Ryan Dempster, A.J. Burnett, Brad Penny and Beckett, the Marlins are one Giambi-esque cleanup hitter from being a powerhouse.

  • Texas first baseman Carlos Pena, third baseman Hank Blalock, center fielder Jason Romano, righty Justin Duchscherer and outfielder Kevin Mench ... A-Rod's leadership with this group of talented young players will a pleasure to watch, because he will accept that responsibility of being a leader.

  • White Sox third baseman Joe Crede. The 26 errors The White Sox have at that position this year is not acceptable when building a young pitching staff.

  • Toronto center fielder Vernon Wells and infielder Felipe Lopez. The Jays are still an organization deep in talent.

  • Mets outfielder Alex Escobar and right-hander Jae Seo. Like Bruce Chen, rather than whisper about them, the Mets have to let them play and prove themselves.

  • Cleveland center fielder Milton Bradley. For 2002 when Kenny Lofton is gone.

  • Philadelphia outfielders Eric Valent and Reggie Taylor and righty reliever Doug Nickle. What scouting director Mike Arbuckle hath wrought has kept the Phillies in the race.

  • Cubs righty reliever Scott Chiasson. Andy MacPhail has already brought in two high-ceiling arms in Carlos Zambrano and Juanderful Cruz, and is fascinated by Chiasson, a Rule 5 draftee who is leading the Southern League in saves and has been clocked at 99 mph.

  • Pirates outfielder Chad Hermansen. He's interesting because of the mystifying whirlpool he has swam through for two years. There isn't much else in the upper reaches of the Pittsburgh organization, he's out of options next spring and is worth the shot.

    Some callups came early, like giant Brewers right-hander Nick Neugebauer and Yankees first baseman Nick Johnson, whose plate discipline could be a help in the postseason off the bench.

    September looks have often been fun. In 1986, the Cubs took a look at a kid named Greg Maddux, who went 2-4, 5.52. Two Septembers later, the Expos took a look at gangly Randy Johnson, and in 1992, the Dodgers got their first brief look at Pedro Martinez. The Red Sox in 1996 brought in Nomar Garciaparra and forced a situation with incumbent shortstop John Valentin.

    Sometimes, these recalls make history. In 1980, the Phillies recalled a pitcher named Marty Bystrom after a 6-5 season in Triple-A. Bystrom went 5-0 and helped the Phils to their first World Series championship. That same season, the Dodgers brought Fernando Valenzuela in from Double-A and 18 scoreless innings later, the Dodgers got to a one-game playoff with the Astros, and Fernandomania was born. In 1974, the Red Sox could not understand why they waited until mid-September, when they had fallen from 7½ games ahead of the Orioles to hopelessly behind, to play Fred Lynn, who batted .429 over the last three weeks.

    Sometimes, they drop out of the sky. Timo Perez shot up from nowhere. Jeff Stone got a hit that clinched first place for the 1990 Red Sox. Hurricane Bob Hazle hit .403 for the '57 Braves, and was sold the next spring. Ask the Phillies if they remember Dick Nen's homer in '64. And Todd Worrell saved the '85 Cardinals.

    Of course, that doesn't mean that September recalls are logical. It does seem curious that sometimes pennants are decided by players that were in the minors in August and that the rules that apply for five months don't apply to the most important month of all.

    Closing thoughts
    The Indians now know that they cannot use Charles Nagy -- who never would say if he was hurting -- and Jaret Wright the rest of the year. They now hope that Paul Shuey can come back in September, and that they can go into the playoffs with a power bullpen of Bob Wickman, John Rocker, Danys Baez and Shuey for the last 6-9 outs. Charlie Manuel has decided that he will use Rocker and Wickman depending on situations. On Monday, the A's had lefties up in the eighth, so Rocker shut them down and Wickman came in for the right-handers. If the situation were reversed, Manuel would have gone Wickman/Rocker.

    "This can be a better situation than putting all your eggs in one closer's basket," says one GM. "There really are only about a half-dozen true closers -- (Mariano) Rivera, Robb Nen, Trevor Hoffman, Billy Wagner, Troy Percival, Billy Koch. The rest are year-to-year." The A's thought they had a saviour in Jason Isringhausen, and by the deadline would have moved him if they could have acquired Kelvim Escobar. Isringhausen's nine blown saves are a major reason that Oakland can't shake Boston, although Red Sox fans have made Derek Lowe Public Enemy No. 1 now that they can't find Jimy Williams or Whitey Bulger.

    "If you can put together four power arms and have a couple of lefties who can throw side-to-side breaking balls for strikes to left-handed hitters, that's a lot better bullpen than one guy, no matter how good Koch or Nen might be," says another GM. "How many one-run saves are there?" Since he asked: the Yankees lead with 17, followed by the Mets and Mariners with 15 and the Cubs and Phillies with 14. Rivera (15), Jose Mesa (14), Armando Benitez (14), Kazuhiro Sasaki (13) and Nen (12) are the individual leaders (all figures courtesy of the Elias Sports Bureau). At this point, the only thing excluding Benitez from the Elite Six is his postseason history, but he has become one of the best in the game.

    But Mesa is a classic example of the risks involved with closers. There should be little doubt that Mesa has been as good and as sure as any reliever in the National League, if not the majors. "But," asks a GM, "would you invest $8 million a year for four years in Jose Mesa? No more than Billy Beane would have in Isringhausen, or Florida would in (Antonio) Alfonseca. You can get a $2-3 million arm to do what Roberto Hernandez does for $6 million. But if he were $3 million, Hernandez would be wonderful. Like Rod Beck. At $1.5 million, he's OK. At $4.5 million, that's an unacceptable extravagance." Arbitration is so artificial, that rather than accept a three- or four-year deal from the White Sox, Keith Foulke knows that he can lose two straight arbitrations and double his pay past $6-7 million the next two years.

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