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As Owners Play Hardball, A Few Senators Suit Up

BASEBALL owners are swinging for the fences. By moving Thursday to impose a salary cap on striking players, team owners hope to win a booming victory in baseball's longest labor-management battle.

But going for the grand slam, owners may strike out instead:

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* If players stay on strike, fans could find themselves watching green replacement players posing as Major Leaguers next spring. Whiff!

* Congressional leaders such as Sens. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah and Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D) of New York are already talking about legislation early in January to end baseball club owner's 72-year exemption from antitrust laws. Owners have enjoyed unprecedented power to control players' salaries industry-wide, prevent the rise of rival leagues, while remaining partly shielded from player lawsuits. Come spring, disappointed fans or a broken players union would only add to the pressure on Congress to act. Whiff!

* A rival league is forming, as if to trumpet the point that current owners can't monopolize players or fans even with their antitrust exemption. Founders of the United Baseball League plan to announce several cities this month that will host teams. The Major League salary cap could help the new league attract professional players. Strike three!

If this scenario, or part of it, does cause the owners to lose their battle, it will not be the first time. Consistently over the past 25 years, Major League owners have taken hard-line positions in disputes with players, only to find themselves walking back to the dugout as a hollow thud echoes in the catcher's mitt.

The stakes are high this time. For fans, the impasse has caused the first season with no World Series since 1904, and now another year is threatened. To many, it looks like America's national pastime is self-destructing. In a sign that this could be America's hottest dispute, former President Jimmy Carter, the Babe Ruth of conflict resolution, has volunteered to help broker peace.

Owners claim that too many teams are losing money and the key to a remedy must be found in slowing the rapid growth in player salaries. Hence the cap on payrolls.

Since owners books are not truly open to the public or to the players union, how bad losses have been is uncertain. Many teams are profitable, but it is generally agreed that some teams based in smaller cities have challenges.

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The San Diego Padres are a case in point. In keeping with their humble, monastic name, they have the lowest-paid squad in the game - payroll costs barely one-third of Detroit's or Atlanta's. According to League statistics, the Padres costs, including pensions, health-care, travel, as well as salaries, are half the Major League average of $40 million.

Under the new system being implemented by owners, teams would share more of their revenue, so the now-poor Padres would get more money to spend and the New York Yankees would have less. Team payrolls could still vary, but only within narrow limits from league averages. And the sport's total payroll would be capped: Player costs as a portion of league revenues would fall from 58 percent today to 50 percent in 1998.

Players, of course, don't like this last idea. They have been on strike since August to prevent it.

Their union plans to appeal to the National Labor Relations Board today, alleging owners failed to bargain in good faith. But whichever side wins the initial hearing, battles in court and at the negotiating table are likely to drag on.

For players, the bottom line is to hold on to the relatively free labor market they have enjoyed since 1976, when players were allowed to become ``free agents.'' Before that, they were essentially the property of one club, without the ability to put their services up for bids.

``The value of a franchise is who's playing for you,'' explains Christopher Cameron, a labor-law expert at the Southwestern University in Los Angeles. For this reason, he says, the sport is ripe for more player participation in ownership and management.

That is precisely the arrangement the United Baseball League hopes to have.

The league's business plan calls for players to reap 35 percent of profits and to work as partners with management. Cities, in return for financing stadiums, would be 15-percent profit partners (including sharing in capital gains when teams are sold).

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