A diary of baseball's coming crunch time

Posturing owners! Angry bankers! Scary lawyers! Rats who gnaw the eyes out first! A day by day guide to the last weeks of the labor war.

Published August 27, 2002 4:03PM (EDT)

Don't say you weren't warned.

Based on as many off-the-record temperature-takings as could be managed, which produced some hints, some deductions and an awful lot of confirmations, this is a road map of the likely events of the next two weeks, the crunchiest of crunch times in the baseball labor war.

I'm putting these pieces together early on the morning of Tuesday, Aug. 27, and many elements of this timeline could be delayed, hastened or knocked down by unforeseen events. But one critical source who has been a back-channel in the last four major baseball impasses says what follows matches his own expectations, if not precisely, then generally.

And the only unforeseen events either of us can guess at, even in a science-fiction sort of way, are: A) a bewildering outbreak of common sense; and B) an unreported, massive owners' strike slush fund that would inoculate them against a seasonal shutdown that the leading sports analyst at Lehman Brothers calculates would cost them $1.2 billion before the end of this October, and $5 billion by the end of October 2003.

What You Don't Know About What's Already Happened: It's clear that contrary to expectations, the hawks are not in complete control of management's side of bargaining.

The owners' negotiators publicly announced they felt abused by player proposals about revenue sharing and steroid testing on Friday and Saturday. Yet on Sunday management still came back with a luxury tax proposal that was marginally more to the players' liking. In point of fact there is probably enough on the table, right now, for the two sides to settle on Year 1 of the deal. It's Years 2, 3 and 4 where they are still wildly apart.

That gesture -- raising the threshold from a payroll of $102 million to a payroll of $107 million before a team would be penalized -- shows the hard-line owners are not pulling the strings. Though the likes of John Moores of the Padres can bluster to the newspapers about how he and eight or nine other owners are willing to keep the parks dark until Opening Day 2004 rather than compromise with the union, these guys may have already been hit over the head with the unanswerable economics of the situation. Cancel the World Series this year and you immediately owe Fox Television $300 million plus up to $230 million more in penalties to compensate the network for lost advertising revenue.

And now, simply offering Fox rebates or free additional years of TV rights may not be sufficient. Suddenly baseball television rights may have all the reliability of Confederate currency.

The reality check may have come in the form of a literal check, or to give it its correct Canadian spelling, a cheque. The most underreported news since the labor situation began to heat up is that the Canadian cable network Score has opted to buy out the last year (2003) of its four-year contract to televise Major League Baseball in that country. The buyout costs them $12 million U.S. -- another season would've cost them $31 million U.S. Score said simply and matter-of-factly that it cannot find advertisers for next year and would prefer to take the smaller loss. You can dress it up any way you want and talk about how the orphaning of the Montreal Expos exaggerates baseball's plight north of the border, but the simple truth remains: A television network has canceled baseball.

Against these two overlooked earthquakes -- the owners' continuing negotiation at the bargaining table while the hawks roar, and the plummet of baseball's symbol in the stock market that is television -- we can begin to see definable features emerge from the haze of the immediate future.

Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2002: Monday's comparative quiet and the relatively rhetoric-free weekend will be shattered by a lot of anonymous quotes from "management sources" and perhaps even "unnamed owners" that the players are either not serious about walking out late Thursday night, or that they have one hand free to stop the clock. A rumor will spread that the first game scheduled for after the deadline, the Cardinals-Cubs matinee Friday at Wrigley Field, might be prophylactically shifted to nighttime to open wider the bargaining window.

The owners will try to exploit what many players admit is queasiness about walking out ("It doesn't fit right in my stomach," Rafael Palmeiro of the Rangers told me Monday). Fire and brimstone stuff may be preached in some places in the mistaken belief that the players are afraid, as opposed to worried. Quotes like the ones uttered by Todd Pratt of the Phillies will be tossed around. Pratt said Sunday he thought the only thing that happened during the 1994 strike was that the low-end guys like him got hurt financially. If the owners had time to buy billboard space in front of every stadium to showcase Pratt's words, they would. But they'd leave off the last thing Pratt said -- about how he'd stick with the union and walk out on Friday anyway.

In the bargaining rooms, little, if anything, will get done; certainly little will be said. The union might come back with more owner-friendly numbers on the luxury tax, but they'll probably leave that until Wednesday.

Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2002: This will also be a day with no apparent progress.

Cable news operations will panic and bring on a lot of people who don't know anything about the dramas playing out behind the scenes: radio call-in hosts, sportswriters, Ann Coulter. There may not even be many meetings between the two sides. A new players' proposal on the tax will be made, but it may be presented only in writing or by phone.

This will be because the owners will be too busy to issue commands to their negotiators. Nationwide long-distance phone usage will rise around 27 percent because of all the MLB sponsors, advertisers, TV network executives and especially bankers who will be calling up and screaming at the owners.

This will be the day for the owners to get queasy. Remember, a lot of these banks who've underwritten what are at minimum $2 billion in loans to the owners are the same ones who just got burned by Enron, WorldCom, et al. Their patience is as thin as their job security.

There may even be a call or two from politicians. President Bush is a former owner and has vowed to stay out of things. Regardless, the White House would not turn down an opportunity to white knight this thing and if the administration's political masterminds don't at least check the lay of the land, they might as well all resign. This is, after all, the one president in history who knows exactly where baseball's skeletons are buried, and who should be reminded of how the push for corporate corporal punishment could easily be adapted for use against executives whose employees could cause a socio-political disaster by being on strike on Sept. 11. And don't forget all the House and Senate leaders who basically called commissioner Bud Selig a liar when he testified before them earlier this year. Even congressmen can dial (most) telephones.

It's possible this message will be delivered so swiftly and so forcefully that the owners' negotiators may present an acceptable luxury tax offer late Wednesday afternoon or early evening, but again, that'll probably wait for dawn.

Thursday, Aug. 29, 2002: Sometime on this day the owners -- probably still clinging to the $107 million mark for the luxury tax threshold for all four years of the deal -- will suddenly instruct their mouthpieces to push it up in at least the final three years. If their creditors, TV partners and sponsors have scared them enough, the offer will be sufficient for the players to say yes and to announce a tentative settlement in time for Peter Jennings to nod sagely about it.

If the owners present a lukewarm offer that Don Fehr still thinks he can finesse in short order, some kind of public announcement or leakage of "positive signs," will be made by 6 p.m. EDT. This is pure logistics: Players have to know whether to travel to the cities in which their new weekend series will begin the next day. The union has never sent players into the air to get to games unless it expects those games to be played.

There remains a 50-50 chance that despite all the exterior pressure, all the fear of cataclysmic revenue collapse and ownership financial fatalities, management will still be belligerent. In that event, talks will break off by dinnertime or by midevening at the latest, and the strike will begin at the end of the Tampa Bay at Anaheim game, around 12:30 a.m.

Simple rule of thumb here: If they haven't broken off talks and announced a strike by 7 or 8 p.m., they've probably got a deal, or at worst, are about to get one.

Friday, Aug. 30, 2002 to Monday, Sept. 2, 2002: If the strike has been averted, there may yet be bloodshed: an internecine war between the big-market owners (who feel they've been shot in the back) and the small-market owners (who feel like they're on Pickett's March). More on that next week, if we find ourselves in what is, oddly, the best-case scenario for the fan.

If not, and there is a strike, nothing will seem to happen over the weekend because of an almost-forgotten quirk of the calendar. This is Labor Day weekend. History tells us that only once (1985) have the two sides stayed at the table immediately after a walkout. They might not meet before Tuesday, although there will be plenty of back-channel scuffling regardless.

Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2002: The amount of external pressure on the owners can be forecast proportionately, based on how many of the bankers' weekends last past Monday. If they're not all still pretending we're in the middle of the '90s boom, they'll be back at their desks this morning. It will not be them on the phones to the owners today -- it'll be their corporate attorneys, speaking in those cool, almost soothing tones Richard Burton whispered just before he snapped the rat cage on John Hurt's head in the movie "1984."

There will be an announcement of phone contact between the two sides, possibly even a meeting. Most of the sound and fury will be from talk radio. This will obscure the scuttling noise of Morgan Stanley rounding up its rats.

Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2002: The moneylenders will have advanced from screaming, to cordial threatening, to faxes so long some owners will run out of paper, and the summoning of many couriers to deliver long, obnoxious, intimidating legal documents. There will not be any loans called in. There will merely be warnings in black and white that bank rats like to go for the eyes first.

Thursday, Sept. 5, 2002: The hawks, always enervated by conflict, may still be holding out. If so, it's at this point that George Steinbrenner's newest attorney, David Boies, will give an interview, possibly to the New York Times, about the fiduciary responsibility of the Office of the Commissioner to treat all partners in baseball fairly and equally, regardless of the powers ceded to that office by all owners. This will be a hidden, coded message that Boies is preparing a lawsuit against commissioner Selig and the others for conflicts of interest, and damages to the New York Yankees and their related entity, Yankees Entertainment and Sports Television.

Friday, Sept. 6, 2002: Bud Selig will explain to the owners the implications of Boies' comments, and with the rats having already eaten all the grass on the field at Kansas City's Kauffman Stadium, even the hard-liners will get the message. The owners will present a final luxury tax proposal that will be slightly better than the minimum the union needs to protect its membership and its face.

Saturday, Sept. 7, 2002: Both sides may dawdle long enough that the settlement is not reached until the early hours of this day and not announced until some time in the afternoon.

Sunday, Sept. 8, 2002: During a joint news conference with Fehr and owners negotiators Rob Manfred and Bob DuPuy -- but not the soon-to-be-scapegoated Selig -- it will be announced that logistics will demand that the games can't resume until Monday.

Each side will pronounce itself dissatisfied with the compromise, and that the real reason they were so willing to make such concessions was their side's overwhelming and abiding primary concern; the one thing that has animated them throughout these 10 long days: their awareness that, at all costs, the games of Sept. 11, 2002, had to be played.

The news conference will end with the singing of "God Bless America."

By Keith Olbermann

Salon columnist Keith Olbermann hosts the ABC Radio Network's "Speaking of Sports ... Speaking of Everything."

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