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In next lockout, bet on players

By JOHN ROMANO

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 11, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- Understand that Donald Fehr cannot afford to care about you, the baseball fan. He is paid to look after the best interests of major-league baseball players and he is extremely good at his job.

So though the union leader may not look forward to another baseball work stoppage after this season, rest assured he will help to cause one.

Baseball's collective-bargaining agreement expires after the season and a lockout by the owners will follow soon after. That seems to be a given. The question is whether the lockout will disrupt the 2002 season.

Every new labor agreement since 1972 has resulted in a work stoppage of some type and three times (1972, '81, '94) it has impacted a season. The word around the Rays clubhouse was that the union might withhold half the licensing money for players this year in order to build a strike fund.

"I would like to believe this time we'll find a way to do it differently. We'll find a way to reach an understanding without having to be persuaded that the other side is serious," Fehr said after a two-hour meeting with Rays players at Florida Power Park on Friday. "All I can tell you is we'll make the effort and bargain in good faith."

It is easy for Fehr to seem optimistic and magnanimous about negotiations because the union is riding history's longest winning streak.

The union inevitably wins the labor war because the owners are witless and weak. And the fans are worse.

Owners never remain united and inevitably cave. Their only solace, to this point, is they continue to pass the losses on to fans who absorb players' salaries with higher ticket prices.

The players will be able to take the high road in the upcoming negotiations because they have no particular issues to pursue. Instead, they can champion the status quo and accuse owners of being the bad guys for trying to take away the rights of players.

Owners can cry poor -- and specific clubs have legitimate economic concerns -- but the players need only point to high attendance and record revenue figures to make their case.

"If revenues go up and other costs remain more or less the same, then the value of the players' services go up and they should be paid more commiserate with the increased revenues," Fehr said. "If revenues fall, the opposite should happen."

In other words, the owners and players will continue their eternal fight to prove which side is more serious about economic issues.

And it will be pointless until fans show they are serious by refusing to play along.

MAKING UP: While Frank Thomas, Gary Sheffield and Barry Bonds were bellyaching over money, Sammy Sosa appears to have quietly returned to the bargaining table with the Cubs. Sosa and the Cubs were getting nowhere in discussions about a six-year contract extension, but the rightfielder might now be willing to talk about a four-year deal.

FALLEN ANGELS: Anaheim might want to begin seeking second opinions on medical issues. First, the Angels failed to recognize that Mo Vaughn needed off-season arm surgery and he will miss the season. Now it appears they were too optimistic about Gary DiSarcina at shortstop. DiSarcina has not played regularly in more than two years, but the Angels did not get a qualified backup. Now he is out again with shoulder problems and Anaheim is looking at Benji Gil or Wilmy Caceras at short.

BOTCHED BUSINESS BUREAU: Just trying to understand this logic: The buyer (Toronto general manager Gord Ash) was supposed to know Mike Sirotka had a bum shoulder even when the seller (White Sox general manager Ken Williams) claims he did not know? Would you accept that explanation from a used car salesman after he sold you a car with a bad transmission? Which, come to think of it, was Bud Selig's former occupation.

SOFTENING THE HYPE: After toying with the idea of having Ichiro Suzuki take over Alex Rodriguez's spot as the No. 3 hitter, the Mariners seem inclined to use their Japanese import at leadoff. The Mariners initially were likening Suzuki to Johnny Damon but manager Lou Piniella is now comparing him with Brett Butler.

HAUNTING PREDICTION: The Cardinals were not enamored with the work habits of Fernando Tatis and dealt him to Montreal in the off-season. Tatis then did his best to antagonize his new employers by avoiding their phone calls during the winter. Tatis still is unhappy about the trade that brought Dustin Hermanson to St. Louis and suggested it was a bad deal for the Cardinals. "They're going to miss me, too," Tatis said. "Just watch."

BILLY THE KID: Billy Wagner is again nearing 100 mph on radar guns after last year's elbow surgery. The Astros blew 25 saves in 2000 and tumbled out of the NL Central lead after consecutive titles. "There's no hiding how badly we need him," manager Larry Dierker said.

LAST WORD: Upon hearing that Mark McGwire might someday have an interest in managing, Cardinals skipper Tony La Russa said the big first baseman would not deal with the media as well as La Russa does. "He hasn't dealt with anything close to what I've dealt with," McGwire replied. "The guy hit .190 in the big leagues, so what could he have dealt with? I've got more home runs (554) than he's got hits (35)."

- Information from other news organizations was used in this report.

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