With one week to go, negotiators for players and owners are optimistic that they have enough time to reach a deal and avoid another baseball strike. Whether they will compromise, though, is still unclear.
The sides had three bargaining sessions Thursday, completing an agreement on debt regulation that eased the union's concerns the rules would restrict spending on players.
Players didn't respond to the owners' latest revenue-sharing proposal, but said it will soon. The union's executive board was to discuss the talks during a telephone conference call Friday.
"The issues have been narrowed sufficiently that it would not take very much time to conclude an agreement," said union lawyer Steve Fehr, the brother of union head Donald Fehr.
While the sides are still apart on their revenue-sharing proposals and disagree on the levels of a proposed luxury tax on the payrolls of baseball's biggest spenders, they agree on much of the framework.
Sometime next week, the sides must decide whether they want to compromise on their numbers or try to outlast each other during a strike. If players walk out on the Aug. 30 strike date, it would be baseball's ninth work stoppage since 1972.
"We have plenty of time to resolve all of the issues that are outstanding between the parties," said Rob Manfred, the owners' top labor lawyer. "It's just a difference of numbers. ... Seven days is plenty of time to resolve those numerical differences."
At times, it seems as if too much time remains before the strike deadline. Pressure has not yet built enough to force the necessary compromises on the biggest issues.
Much of Thursday, according to Manfred, was devoted to scheduling, interleague play and the assignment of player contracts.
The debt regulation agreement resolved a potential problem with the owners' 60-40 rule, according to a management official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The 60-40 rule, established in the mid-1970s but enforced only periodically, requires each team to have at least 60 percent of its value in assets and no more than 40 percent in debt. In March, commissioner Bud Selig told teams that the rule would be enforced again, and said all unpaid money owed players in long-term contracts would be counted as debt.
Players claimed that counting players as liabilities but not assets was an effort to reduce salaries, while owners said it always had been part of the rule. Selig's interpretation could have affected some teams, including the World Series champion Arizona Diamondbacks, who owe large amounts of deferred salaries.
Under the agreement Wednesday, money owed players will not be counted as debt, the management official said. Manfred and Steve Fehr would only discuss the new debt regulations in general terms.
"This rule says you must generate enough cash to pay the debt as it comes due," Manfred said.
Players and owners still have to complete their agreements on steroid testing and establish a committee to study how to put in place a worldwide amateur draft.
But the key issues will be revenue sharing and the luxury tax.
Owners want to greatly increase the amount of locally generated revenue shared by the 30 teams. Their proposal, using 2001 figures, would raise the amount shifted from the richest teams to the poorest from $169 million to $268 million. The union's last proposal would shift $235 million.
Instead of the so-called "split-pool plan," which gives a higher percentage of the money to teams that make less than the major league average, the union has agreed to management's request for a "straight-pool plan," which favors teams in the middle.
The luxury tax is the most difficult issue because it directly slows the rate of salary increases. Owners have proposed that the portions of 40-man payrolls over $102 million — including $9 million in benefits — be taxed at a rate of 37.5 percent to 50 percent, depending on the number of times a team exceeds the threshold.
Donald Fehr said in memos to players and agents last weekend that those plans, when combined with revenue sharing, were "tantamount to a salary cap," and players have countered with thresholds of $130 million to $150 million, and tax rates of 15 to 30 percent.
"I think that memorandum was written in order to convince players there was an issue out there that was worth striking over," Manfred said.
By Ronald Blum
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