SOUNDING A FALSE ALARM

By Murray Chass

March 26, 2009

Throughout the 40-year history of baseball labor negotiations, most reporters have shied away from covering them. If they didn’t concern hits and strikeouts, the reporters wanted no part of them.

It comes as a curiosity, then, that reporters with little experience covering baseball labor matters have created a false impression of discord between the union and the clubs where no discord exists. There have been two recent examples.

In a piece about the union’s grievance last week over the practice of teams’ directing players to contribute money to team charities, Tom Verducci wrote on SI.com “so much for the feel-good, cooperative effort of the players and owners that the World Baseball Classic was supposed to represent.”

The union’s action, he added, “has intensified erosions in the partnership as the winds of a 2012 labor war begin to blow.”

Verducci especially cited the timing of the grievance as being inflammatory. “Why are you picking the finals round of the WBC to drop the bomb?” Verducci quoted Rob Manfred, the owners’ chief labor executive, as saying.

Except Manfred denied making that statement. “I did not use the word ‘bomb,’” he wrote in an e-mail message. “And, I certainly did not say it in the context Tom places the quote.”

That is not to say Manfred was thrilled with the timing of the grievance. “I guess if I had my druthers the timing would have been different,” he said on the telephone. “But it’s not accurate that the developments say there are larger problems with our labor relations. We may not care for the theory underlying the grievance and we may think the timing wasn’t ideal, but that doesn’t mean that Armageddon is around the corner.”

Donald Fehr, the man on the other side of the bargaining table, agreed with Manfred’s view. “So far,” he said, “I wouldn’t draw that conclusion. We’re a long way from bargaining for a new basic agreement, almost three years.”

Their comments applied also to an article in The New York Times last month in which Michael Schmidt, a newcomer to the labor reporting scene, wrote that labor relations were being affected by drug-testing issues, specifically reports that Gene Orza, a union official, tipped off players in 2004 about when they would be tested for performance-enhancing drugs.

“What the commissioner’s office will do from here remains to be seen,” Schmidt wrote. “It could go so far as to file a grievance against the union, alleging that Orza violated the collective bargaining agreement by providing players with notice of drug tests.”

Whether the commissioner’s office ultimately filed a grievance, he continued, “there is clearly a growing hostility between the two sides after years of relative labor peace.”

The problem with that assessment was there was never going to be a grievance filed – six weeks later none has been filed – and there was no growing hostility, clear or otherwise.

“Major League Baseball knows there’s no way I would get information like that,” Orza has said. “Rob Manfred does not believe I tipped off players to tests because he knows it was impossible for me to have done so.”

For Orza (right) to have known the timing of tests, Manfred (left) would also have known because they were the officials in charge of the testing program. Manfred also knew that the charges in a Sports Illustrated article were the same as those included in the 2007 Mitchell report. In other words, there was nothing new and therefore nothing to investigate or file a grievance over.

Major League Baseball officials might have told reporters they would look into the charge that Orza alerted players, but that statement would have been designed more for public relations purposes than a belief that Orza violated the agreement.

Much of the rhetoric arising from a difference of opinion on labor matters is for media and public consumption. Each side wants to look like the right side on any issue, but having differing views doesn’t automatically mean the players and the owners are on the brink of war.

For 30 years, the players and owners fought, often bitterly. There were issues, like a payroll cap and changes in the salary arbitration system, that were very important to one side or the other, and fighting and work stoppages ensued. The last two labor agreements, however, were negotiated without a strike or a lockout, and the two sides, acting in an unprecedented manner, even revised an existing agreement to strengthen the drug-testing program.

Key factors in the atmospheric change at the labor table have been the owners’ last two negotiators, Randy Levine in the ‘90s and Manfred for the last 11 years. Both developed improved relations with the union and reduced the volume and the tone of the clubs’ rhetoric. Unlike some of their predecessors, they did not act in a win-at-all-cost manner and were able to conduct negotiations in a more reasonable way. A grievance or two will not send them back to the dark ages of baseball negotiations.

“Labor relations is about finding ways to resolve things and we’ve been pretty good doing that for 11 years,” Manfred said. “Labor and management will find a way to work through it without Armageddon.”

The current agreement expires after the 2011 season. In the aftermath of the Yankees’ orgiastic spending on free agents this winter, some owners called for a payroll cap, but that war has been fought, and it’s highly unlikely that anyone wants to fight it again, especially Commissioner Bud Selig, whose term expires after the 2012 season.

It’s always possible that relations will change in the next three years, and issues will arise that prompt a fierce labor struggle in 2011, but I don’t think Selig will want to be in position to have a work stoppage wreck his last year as commissioner.

As for the grievance the union filed over players’ forced donations to their teams’ charities, the donation that caught everyone’s attention, though it was not the only one by any means, was Manny Ramirez’s $1 million contribution to the Dodgers Dream Foundation. Frank McCourt, the Dodgers’ owner, also caught people’s attention by saying that every player the Dodgers sign in the future will be asked to make a donation to the foundation.

McCourt is a wealthy man and presumably donates some of his wealth to charity. Chances are he chooses the charities he gives his money to. If that is so, why is he telling his players where they have to give their money?

“What we’re trying establish is you can’t require charitable contributions from salary,” Fehr said. “If a player wants to do it, that’s fine.”

Jamie McCourt, the owner’s wife and the club president, offered a slightly different view of the issue. “I don’t think you can make anybody do anything they don’t want to do,” she said in a telephone interview. But she added, “In many ways the Dream Foundation makes it easy because it’s already there, and they go to the fields and work with the community.”

Frank McCourt called his giving plan “the Ramirez provision,” which is somewhat ironic because of the outfielder’s own giving plan. After the 2004 season, in which Ramirez earned $21 million with the Red Sox, I wrote a column in the Times about Ramirez and his high school, George Washington, in Manhattan. His coach, Steve Mandl, didn’t ask Manny for money but hoped that he would give the school $10,000 to $20,000 to buy new uniforms and equipment for the baseball team. Ramirez did not do it.

Some readers of the column criticized me for having the audacity to tell Ramirez what he should do with his money. But I wasn’t telling him what to do with his money. I was only spotlighting a situation and a wealthy player’s reaction to it.

Around the same time, Alex Rodriguez gave $3.9 million to the University of Miami’s baseball program, and he didn’t even attend the school. He donated the money to thank the Miami baseball people for letting him work out at their field when he was in high school. No one told him he had to do it.

Comments? Please send email to comments@murraychass.com.