Lawyer said deal possible in several days

NEW YORK – Baseball’s top labor lawyer said Tuesday it was possible a bargaining agreement could be reached ”in the next several days” to avert a threatened walkout by players.

One day after the union held off setting a strike date, talks resumed and focused on two key issues: management’s desire for increased revenue sharing and a luxury tax that would restrain spending by high-payroll teams.

Though neither side pointed to any specific progress, management lawyer Ron Manfred said: ”I think both parties feel tremendous pressure to get this resolved as quickly as possible.”

The union’s executive board has scheduled a telephone conference call Friday, and could set a strike date then if it thinks a deal isn’t close.

Asked if he thought a settlement could be reached before the conference call, Manfred replied: ”Friday is a little too specific for me. I continue to believe we are close enough that it is possible to make an agreement in the next several days.”

Union head Donald Fehr was more reticent in discussing the latest session.

”At this stage, daily running commentary is not something I would suggest; that would enhance rather detract from making a deal,” he said.

But Johnny Damon of the Boston Red Sox said players ”get the feeling the owners think we can get something done by the end of the week.”

”If they really want to work with us, we’re ready, but if not, a date might have to be set,” he said.

Both sides say the luxury tax is the biggest hurdle to a settlement, disagreeing on what it is supposed to do.

”We view it as certainly something that artificially restrains payroll,” Fehr said. ”But one of the things it does is transfer money. He’s being grossly oversimplistic.”

For Manfred, a stiffer luxury tax is a must.

”My view is that it’s clear that if an agreement is reached in the next few days, it will contain a luxury tax,” he said, adding that ”the tax mechanism that was in the last Basic Agreement would not be acceptable to us this time around.”

Owners first proposed increasing the amount of locally generated revenue that clubs share from 20 percent to 50 percent. They also asked for a 50 percent luxury tax on the portions of payrolls over $98 million, including 40-man rosters and benefits.

On Sunday, owners raised the payroll threshold to $100 million, said one participant in the talks who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Owners also offered to phase in the tax for high-spending teams, saying that for teams with payrolls over $130 million, the full 50-percent rate would take effect in 2006. For those clubs with salaries over $115 million, the 50-percent rate would start in 2005. For all others over $100 million, the 50-percent tax would start next year.

The previous contract, which expired last November, contained a luxury tax for the 1997, 1998 and 1999 seasons. It started at the midpoint of the payrolls of the fifth- and sixth-highest spenders, and had a rate of 34 percent or 35 percent, depending on the season.

Owners felt that tax was of little or no significance, leading to their proposal for a fixed threshold and a higher rate. Players appear to be willing to consider a tax that will restrain salaries slightly but not severely. The union says revenue sharing and a luxury tax must be considered together because they would combine to take away millions of dollars from high-revenue teams.

”The union tends to analyze the tax as another mechanism that transfers money from one group of clubs to another group of clubs,” Manfred said. ”We view it differently. We view it as payroll regulation.”

At the ballparks, players were hopeful an agreement could be reached without a strike.

”Just the fact that we’re having this conference call will keep pressure on both sides,” Tampa Bay’s John Flaherty said. ”Keep the momentum going and, hopefully, we’ll have good news by the end of week. That’s being very optimistic, but we saw how quickly things picked up over the weekend just for the fact that we had this meeting on Monday.”

The last walkout began in August 1994 and lasted 232 days, wiping out the World Series for the first time in 90 years. This time, both camps have toned down their rhetoric in trying to avoid baseball’s ninth work stoppage since 1972.

”We’re already not popular, and neither are the owners,” Detroit’s Damion Easley said. ”All the fans care about is that there is no work stoppage at all, that we keep playing and that we work this thing out. They don’t want to hear about dollars and cents.”

Tampa Bay manager Hal McRae, a former union member, predicted there will not be a walkout.

”It’s bad for both sides if they strike,” he said. ”This time everybody knows there won’t be a winner. I think the fans would rebel. They’re sick of it. A coin toss which recovers quicker – baseball or the market?”

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