The first sign that the owners' spring-training lockout of players could endanger the start of the regular season arose in baseball's stagnated labor negotiations Tuesday. Donald Fehr, executive director of the players association said if the two sides failed to make significant progress today and Thursday, the union negotiators would break off talks and travel to different cities to brief players on the negotiations.
The trip, he estimated, would force a recess in the negotiations until at least March 5. That date is exactly four weeks before the season is scheduled to start, and with no agreement in sight, it would be virtually impossible for players to be ready to play the opening games April 2.
"By Thursday," he said after a two-hour meeting in New York, "it will be absolutely clear that camps will not open even on the mandatory reporting date, Feb. 28, and it will become virtually clear that the
beginning of the regular season will be implicated."
The owners' negotiators were aware of the possibility of the 10-day recess and did not disagree that it might be necessary.
"There's no sense in meeting just to make sure the other fellow's alive," said Charles O'Connor, the owners' chief negotiator. "There isn't much sense in meeting with the other side if there isn't a purpose to meet."
Asked if they would be endangering the start of the season, O'Connor said, "We may be."
The owners' negotiators, however, will make an effort to induce progress into the talks. O'Connor said they plan to present a new proposal at today's session.
"We are looking for ways to make a meaningful response to their concerns about younger players," he said. "We have been working on it since last weekend."
The new proposal, O'Connor said, would not alter the owners' position that eligibility for salary arbitration should remain at three years instead of the two years the players want.
It would, he added, try to mollify the players by addressing other issues, like minimum salary and roster control of players in their first three years in the major leagues, "how they feel they're getting a fair shot to test their ability to be a major-leaguer."
The union has proposed that all players who are removed from a team's 40-player roster by outright assignment to the minor leagues have a choice of becoming free agents.
O'Connor said the negotiators would be working on the proposal Tuesday night in a meeting that would include Bud Selig, owner of the Milwaukee Brewers and chairman of the Player Relations Committee, and two general managers who have participated in the talks, Frank Cashen of the Mets and Harry Dalton of the Brewers.
"It doesn't mean we'll be able to come up with a miracle solution," O'Connor said, "but we're working as hard as we can."
There was some question, though, whether the owners could devise a proposal attractive enough to induce the players to accept it as a tradeoff for their arbitration demand.
"If we thought there was something we could do that would be acceptable to the players, we would have turned it around long ago," Fehr said.
The two sides have been firm in their stands on salary arbitration, which they agree has become the pivotal point of their efforts to get a new collective-bargaining agreement.
The owners have wanted to gain some sort of control over the salaries players gain in arbitration, but they seem resigned to retaining the current system. The players have not indicated a similar resignation.
The inability to move on that central issue makes it very likely that the talks will be recessed after Thursday.