Major league baseball players said Friday that they would strike beginning Aug. 30 because of a lack of progress in labor talks, moving a step closer to a shutdown for a sport that is still regaining its legs after a destructive work stoppage in 1994.
The players' action does not mean there will be a strike, but it raises the stakes for both sides by giving owners and players a two-week deadline in which to reach a new collective bargaining agreement. Owners strongly opposed the setting of a strike date, fearing it could rekindle hard feelings on both sides and cause the game's troubled economics -- owners say the 30 teams are nearly $4 billion in debt -- to further deteriorate.
Despite Friday's ominous news out of New York, another baseball weekend unfolded in cities around the country as hundreds of thousands of fans went to see their favorite teams. Hundreds were lined up at the gates at Oriole Park at Camden Yards Friday night, many wearing floppy hats and preparing to watch the Orioles host the Detroit Tigers. The focus Friday night was the on the players' off-field agitations rather than their on-field acrobatics.
If the players go on strike, "I'm going to have to file for unemployment until I find another job ... that's probably going to pay less than this one," said Serita Kendrick, a concession cashier and mother of two from Baltimore. "At least wait until the season is over, then do what you have to do."
Shortly after the players' announcement Friday, President George Bush, a former part-owner of the Texas Rangers, made his feelings known.
"The baseball owners and the baseball players must understand that if there is a stoppage, a work stoppage, a lot of fans are going to be furious, and I'm one of them," Bush said.
Union executive director Donald Fehr said the players imposed the Aug. 30 deadline in order to speed a resolution to the ongoing labor negotiations with owners, which have stalled over differences on how much teams can spend on players.
"The purpose of setting a strike date we want to make absolutely clear," said Fehr. "It's very simple and very direct: We want to reach an agreement."
The Sept. 11 anniversary was taken into account by the 57 players who convened on a conference call Friday, said Fehr. He said the goal is to reach a collective bargaining agreement as soon as possible.
"When you go into setting a date ... what you're trying to do is come up with a date which will give you the very best chance of reaching an agreement," Fehr said. "September 11 and the anniversary is obviously a difficult issue and the players hope, like everyone else, that they will be playing then and through the end of the season."
Player and owner representatives plan to return to the bargaining table Saturday to try to reach an accord and avoid a repeat of the 232-day strike in 1994, which brought an early end to the season and resulted in the cancellation of the World Series for the first time in 90 years.
The owners' side said they were disappointed with the players' action. They said the talks were already infused with intensity because both sides realize how destructive another work stoppage would be to the game. There have been eight work stoppages since 1972.
"I felt that the process had been imbued with a sense of urgency on both sides," said Robert Manfred, executive vice president for labor relations and human resources, and an owner negotiator. "They apparently felt that the addition of a strike date would bring more pressure. In all honesty, I don't think we feel any different today than we did yesterday. We'd like to get an agreement."
The union's executive board agreed on the Aug. 30 date during a pivotal meeting in Chicago on Monday but delayed the announcement until the end of the week in order to give the talks more time to progress. They executive board decided to announce a strike date Friday after a 90-minute conference call with Fehr, who described the status of the negotiations.
Both parties have agreed on, or are close to agreement on, several issues large and small including drug-testing, a minimum player salary, player benefits and deferred compensation.
The major difference is over the implementation of a tax rate on team payrolls that is designed to control spiraling payroll salaries and to redistribute money from wealthy teams to those with less resources. The owners want the tax to start at payrolls of $102 million and the union favors $130 million.
"Clearly, the luxury tax is a major obstacle that has to be resolved," Fehr said.
Manfred and other owners speaking at a news conference Friday said the disagreements were just a matter of numbers and were not over a difference in philosophy.
Both parties Friday emphasized that they have made concessions toward the other side during the last few days.
"It seems to me we have one more hurdle to overcome, and that is to what extent we tax the highest team payrolls," said Andrew B. MacPhail, president of the Chicago Cubs and one of the owner negotiators. "It's just a matter of working through the numbers and working out a deal."
The average player salary is $2.38 million.
The players believe their only leverage with the owners is to set a strike date toward the end of the season, threatening the lucrative postseason and World Series. The players are concerned that if they go into the offseason without a deal, the owners will lock them out and impose new work rules.
Blondelle Hunter, who runs the "Dogs Plus" concession stand outside Oriole Park, said baseball's problems come down to "pure greed."
"People are pinching their pennies to scrape up enough money to bring their families here," said the high school computer science teacher from Columbia, Md. "If I were a fan, I would never buy another ticket. I think the fans need to remind the players who pays their salaries."