By Drew Olson Special to Published Aug 19, 2006 at 5:42 AM
As baseball fans gear up for what should be a wildly interesting five-week sprint to the finish (OK, in the case of the National League wild card, we’ll have to call it a brisk walk), we pause to consider the most gloriously under-covered and overlooked story in the game today:

The labor situation.

Did you know that the collective bargaining agreement between team owners and the Player’s Association expires on Dec. 19? In past years, the ticking of the labor clock would be loud enough to drown out one of Daron Sutton’s home run calls. Everyone from the executive offices to the beer vendors would be sweating the details and dreading the ramifications of a work stoppage.

This year, a strike or lockout seems about as unlikely as a Brewers-Royals World Series. The silence has been both deafening and revealing.

"It’s a sign that they’ve begun the process and they’re doing things the right way," said Astros manager Phil Garner, who was active in labor negotiations during his playing days. "The less noise there is about it, the better the chance that they can get something done.

"If one of the sides says something to the media, that causes the other side to dig in their heels. It doesn’t matter which side it is. As long as they can be quiet and have discussions, you can get some small stuff out of the way. Believe it or not, some the small stuff is what can kill the deal down the road. You can agree on the big things and get in the biggest arguments over the simplest of things, like meal money."

In the past, baseball commissioner Bud Selig and union chief Donald Fehr would use the media to lob threats at each other like verbal grenades. There has been none of that this year. Negotiations have been taking place away from the spotlight, but they still are taking place. The fact that Selig recently canceled a quarterly owner’s meeting -- with the official reason being a lack of things to talk about -- was a pretty good indicator that acrimony is running low these days.

"We have a better working relationship with the owners than we’ve ever had," said Brewers pitcher Rick Helling, a member of the union’s executive board. "It would really be a shame if something happened. I think both sides realize that.

"We all realize that the industry is at its peak right now. It’s as good as baseball has ever been in terms of attendance, money, fan support and even competition. Twenty out of 30 teams can say they have a shot right now. It doesn’t get much better than this."

Does that mean Helling is optimistic that negotiations will go smoothly?

"You’re optimistic, but our track record isn’t very good," he said, adding that players are being updated on the talks. "The last (negotiation), we got done. Like any other negotiation, (owners) are going to try to get the best deal for them and we’re going to try to get the best deal for us. Issues change throughout the years. Steroids are a bigger issue than ever before and the Mitchell investigation.

"There are some things to work through. But, I think it can happen."

Garner agreed. "The truth of the matter is you’re really not going to get a deal until there is a time crunch," he said. "It’s naïve to say "Well, let’s just get in a room and get it done, a month before the deadline." People who say that simply do not understand the process. People that would do that simply would get their ass handed to them on a platter if they did that.

"If you’re in a negotiating posture for anything, you always feel like if you settle two months ahead you’re doing it from a position of weakness. If both sides feel pretty strong, then you should be able to get to a deal. It will come down to the end. There will be some posturing, but I think it’s a good sign that they’ve started the process."

When the soon-to-expire five-year deal was reached just before the deadline on Aug. 30, 2002, it was hailed as a miracle. For the first time in 30 years, peace was reached without a stoppage. Since that time, the partnership between ownership and the union -- which will never be cozy -- has been strengthened in the face of Congressional involvement in the steroids controversy. That caused the sides to adjust the parameters of their CBA in midstream, a move that was unprecedented and previously unfathomable.

The reason for the harmony is clear. With attendance and revenue skyrocketing, the industry is expected to make $5.2 billion this year. Owners are swimming in cash from the sale of the Washington Nationals ($450 million). The players, meanwhile, have seen their average salary jump to $2.85 million. The minimum salary is $327,000 and more than 400 of the 750 players are hauling in more than $1 million per season.

How could the sides possibly screw this up? Look back at 1994. Last Saturday marked the 12th anniversary of the start of a strike that led to cancellation of the 1994 World Series -- one of the lower points in the history of the sport. There were no winners in that work stoppage, which ran into spring training of ’95, but the biggest losers were the Montreal Expos and their fans. Led by Larry Walker, Moises Alou, Marquis Grissom, Cliff Floyd, Pedro Martinez, Ken Hill, Mike Lansing, Wil Cordero and John Wetteland, the Expos were 74-40 and held a six-game lead over Atlanta when the strike began.

When play resumed following an owner’s lockout and a 232-day break, the Expos sold off their best players and neither the fans nor the franchise recovered. MLB eventually took control of the orphaned Expos and turned them into the Nationals.

Selig calls the strike / lockout the most heartbreaking point of his tenure as commissioner. A snag in the labor talks this time around, with the game enjoying unprecedented success, would be even more devastating.
Drew Olson Special to

Host of “The Drew Olson Show,” which airs 1-3 p.m. weekdays on The Big 902. Sidekick on “The Mike Heller Show,” airing weekdays on The Big 920 and a statewide network including stations in Madison, Appleton and Wausau. Co-author of Bill Schroeder’s “If These Walls Could Talk: Milwaukee Brewers” on Triumph Books. Co-host of “Big 12 Sports Saturday,” which airs Saturdays during football season on WISN-12. Former senior editor at Former reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.