NEW YORK – Some of the nastiest pitches in baseball this year are being hurled across Manhattan conference rooms, where owners are demanding economic changes that could spark the game's ninth work stoppage since 1972.
It could mean no World Series for the second time in eight years.
Players are likely to set a strike date when their executive board meets Monday, possibly leading to a walkout in late August or early September. The key stumbling block appears to be management's demand to slow escalating player salaries -- a luxury tax on teams with high payrolls.
"Eventually, it all has to be tied together," said Atlanta pitcher Tom Glavine, the National League player representative. "There's caution on our side because obviously the big issues -- revenue sharing and luxury tax -- are out there."
Finding a way to slow salaries has been a perennial management goal. Players, however, would like keep things the way they are. Since 1976, the last season before free agency, the average salary has jumped from $51,500 to $2.38 million, a 46-fold increase.
Commissioner Bud Selig said it has reached the point where only the richest teams can compete. He thinks revenue-sharing -- taking from the biggest clubs and giving to the smaller ones, like his family-owned Milwaukee Brewers -- is the only way to restore competitive balance.
"The system is so, in my judgment, badly flawed, it's going to take a myriad of solutions," Selig said earlier this month.
One anti-revenue sharing owner who sticks up for big-market clubs is George Steinbrenner, whose New York Yankees' payroll is $135 million. Steinbrenner says profit-sharing should be used to raise payrolls, not help teams rack up profits.
There seemed to be some progress in negotiations the past week, with players ending their decades-old opposition to mandatory drug testing and agreeing to be tested for steroids starting next year.
Players also are amenable to increasing the amount of local revenue teams share. But they oppose the luxury tax, which could force high-spending clubs to trim tens of millions of dollars from payrolls.
The union doesn't want to leave itself open to a lockout, which would delay a confrontation until next spring, when owners have less money at stake. That's why a strike date probably will be set.
Monday's meeting in Chicago takes place on the eighth anniversary of the 232-day strike that led to the cancellation of the World Series for the first time since 1904.
But a big difference from 1994 is that both sides have had dozens of bargaining sessions in recent weeks and have narrowed their differences. Nine years ago, when owners demanded a fixed ceiling on salaries known as a cap, the first substantive talks didn't take place until three months after the walkout.
"There's good reason to be optimistic at this point," said former pitcher David Cone, a key member of the players' negotiating team during the last walkout. "The framework's there for an agreement, unlike last time."
The last strike wiped out the final 52 days and 669 games of the regular season and forced cancellation of the first 23 days and 252 games of the following season. It ended only after a federal judge issued an injunction restoring the terms of the former labor contract, ruling owners had illegally changed work rules.