Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Baseball Labors Under Prosperity - And Peace

ST. LOUIS - By the time baseball's newly agreed upon collective-bargaining agreement expires in 2011, the sport will have enjoyed a historic 16-year run without a divisive strike or lockout.

The unprecedented era of peace was ushered in before the world's media last night on baseball's biggest stage: the World Series. It was further evidence of how the partnership between management and players has grown as impressively as the game itself in the last four years.

Gone was the acrimony that historically marked the beginning, middle and end of past negotiations. Gone were the divisive issues that led to so much mistrust and post-negotiation fallout, which usually did not dissipate before new talks were to begin.

"These negotiations were emblematic of the new spirit of cooperation and trust that now exists between the clubs and players," commissioner Bud Selig said during a news conference overflowing with players, union officials and club executives taking turns singing each other's praises.

Donald Fehr, head of the Major League Baseball Players Association, agreed. Noting that he has been representing the players for 29 years, Fehr said: "I'd been waiting for most of that time to see if we could ever get to the place where we reached an agreement prior to [a contract's] expiration. . . . I'm not sure that I believed that it could happen - until this time."

The two sides reached agreement two months before the current deal was to expire. The new deal mirrors, in many ways, its predecessor:
The revenue-sharing agreement between large-market and small-market teams remains the same.

The competitive-balance tax (commonly known as the luxury tax) remains the same: 22 percent for teams over the threshold for the first time, 30 percent for the second time, and 40 percent for the third time.

The drug-testing program - with a 50-day suspension for first-time offenders, a 100-day suspension for second-timers, and a lifetime ban for third-timers - stays the same.

One of the more notable changes involved free agency, with the elimination of various signing deadlines, including the one that prohibited teams from talking to former-players-turned-free-agents until May 1.

The minimum salary will increase from $327,000 this year to $380,000 next season.

Among the new deal's declarations: no "contraction" (elimination of teams) / during the term of the agreement. Also, the home-field advantage for the World Series will still be awarded to the league that wins the All-Star Game.

The seeds for peace were sown not in the talks that preceded this five-year deal but in 2002, when the owners let go of their demand for a hard salary cap.
In place of that demand, the owners and players compromised on a luxury tax, and a work stoppage was avoided.

Since then, with the tax in place on the big-spending teams, money has rolled in and fan interest has boomed.

"We're in the midst of baseball's golden age," said Selig. "More than 76 million fans attended our games this season, setting a record for the third consecutive year. And we produced $5.2 billion in revenue, which quadruples our revenue total 14 years ago."

Both sides still see the luxury tax as a compromise. Policies to ensure that low-revenue teams roll the largesse into their product are once again written into the deal. However, markets such as Tampa Bay and Miami remain economic worries.

"No system is ever perfect in any sport, or in most everything in life, but we have made substantial improvements in the system," Selig said. "And I believe that the small- and medium-market teams today are in far better shape than they were five years ago."

As proof, both sides pointed to a second straight World Series featuring teams from baseball's small-market-dominated Central Divisions, and to the fact that when the Detroit Tigers or St. Louis Cardinals win the 2006 Series, they will be the seventh different world champion in seven years.

All sides placed credit on the end of the war between the two sides.

"Labor peace is good for the game," said Arizona infielder Craig Counsell, one of the players-negotiators said. "Interest is at an all-time high. We feel the focus is on the field. It's good for baseball. It's good for us, as well."

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