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Baseball Dispute Threatens Spring Training

LABOR difficulties are likely to delay spring training for major league baseball, scheduled to open Thursday. Team owners and players are trying to negotiate a new contract. But observers say the two sides are farther apart now than at any time in the last 20 years of bargaining. They foresee a long dispute.

``The players want the status quo or better than the status quo, and the owners want this radical plan,'' says James Dworkin, a sports labor expert and associate dean of Purdue University's Krannert Graduate School of Management.

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Bill Gould, a law professor at Stanford University and coauthor of a sports labor-relations book, agrees. ``I think the owners have clearly thrown down the gauntlet. This puts them worlds apart from the players,'' he says.

Both sides were scheduled to continue negotiations after a 45-minute bargaining session Monday. Don Fehr, the players' union leader, said it was virtually certain this week's opening of training camp would be delayed. Owners have agreed not to open training camps until substantial progress was made in the labor dispute.

The main sticking point is player salaries. Under the current system, players with six years or more in the major leagues can sell their services to the highest bidding team. Less experienced players are paid a straight salary first and, later, have their salaries determined by independent arbitrators.

Owners are deeply dissatisfied with the arbitration system, saying it awards salaries that are much too high. So they have proposed to replace it with a pay-for-performance system. Players with less than six years' experience would be ranked and paid accordingly, in essence letting a computer judge their contribution to the team.

The owners also propose a revenue-sharing plan, under which the players would get 48 percent of the revenue from ticket sales and broadcast contracts - an idea similar to the National Basketball Association's system.

The players' union, the Major League Baseball Players Association, wants to stick with the current system.

``What we're saying is that the owners are proposing a radical change in the financial structure of the game, and we don't see there's any justification for that,'' Mr. Fehr told reporters last week.

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The owners' plan will be difficult to sell because it comes at a time when there is little apparent financial crisis in baseball. ``The owners do not appear to be suffering,'' says Gary Roberts, a sports law specialist at Tulane Law School. ``If this situation gets settled in the near term, it's because the owners will have caved in, not because the players will have caved in.''

Yet owners are showing more unity over their plan than in previous years, labor experts say. And by closing training camps, they have taken away the initiative from the players' union, which would be expected to strike in the middle of the season when there would be more pressure to settle.

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