Baseball owners, found to have illegally imposed a salary cap in December, scrapped the whole system Friday and removed the major obstacle blocking talks toward settling the six-month-old strike.
With President Clinton pressing for an agreement by Monday, the National Labor Relations Board unexpectedly sped up its process and told owners it would file an unfair labor practice charge against them. Owners immediately backed down and said they would restore baseball’s old business rules.
“It’s putting pressure to clear the decks and get a deal done,” Colorado Rockies chairman Jerry McMorris said.
Earlier this week, owners made a proposal that didn’t contain a salary cap. But legally, the system in place still was the one they implemented Dec. 23, a plan that would have forced teams to sharply lower their payrolls.
“What was imposed is rescinded; it is as if it had never been,” union head Donald Fehr said.
Spring training is to start Feb. 16, and owners have been signing replacement players to be strikebreakers. Management lawyer Chuck O’Connor said Friday’s developments wouldn’t change those plans.
But most everything else in baseball was sent into limbo. Some players don’t know if they’ll be free agents or wind up with their old clubs in salary arbitration. Small-market teams don’t know if they’ll get revenue-sharing money from their large-city rivals.
Players and owners will be back at the table today, with the union expected to make a counterproposal to the luxury-tax plan owners presented on Wednesday.
Before the big events, the union had been stalling. Then the NLRB summoned owners to its office Friday afternoon and general counsel Fred Feinstein told them the agency was prepared to rule against them for declaring an impasse in talks when none existed. Feinstein also said the NLRB was contemplating seeking a court order to stop the cap.
Owners, who have lost a string of legal cases during the past two decades, capitulated on the cap and said baseball’s old rules would be restored, effective Monday - coincidentally the 100th anniversary of Babe Ruth’s birth.
“All of the demands that were imposed are withdrawn,” NLRB spokesman Dave Parker said. “They’re back to bargaining.”
The NLRB’s finding and the owners’ retreat was a major victory for the union, which declared all along that the implementation was illegal.
When owners put the cap in place, they changed many of the major rules that had governed the game since 1976. They eliminated salary arbitration, created a new class of restricted free agents and gave themselves the right to release players at any time for any reason.
Among the 38 restricted free agents were Marquis Grissom and Ken Hill of the Montreal Expos, both of whom had worked out tentative deals with the Florida Marlins. The restricted free agents - those with between four and six seasons in the major leagues - had the right to sign offer sheets until Feb. 6, and their current clubs had 10 days to match any offers.