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POLL FINDS SENATE SILENT ON MLB ANTI-TRUST EXEMPTION
Published September 12, 1994
With the latest round of talks between MLB owners and players yielding no settlement, the MLBPA and its Washington representatives will turn their attention to Congressional action on baseball's antitrust exemption. As early as today, Sen. Howard Metzenbaum, the Antitrust Subcommittee Chair and a longtime foe of baseball's special status, will re-introduce legislation to have the exemption lifted. Metzenbaum has pushed twice before to change the game's status, most recently in June '94 when his bill was defeated in the Senate Judiciary Committee by a 10-7 vote. Now, Metzenbaum is back for one "last stand" before he retires. He has scaled back his previous legislation and found an influential co-sponsor in Utah Republican Orrin Hatch. The Metzenbaum/Hatch bill lifts the ban for the duration of the strike and would allow players to sue if the owners unilaterally impose a salary cap during the off-season. But even with a new co-sponsor and a change in tactics, the bill faces an uphill fight in a Senate largely fearful of taking a stand on this controversial issue. According to an exclusive straw poll of the U.S. Senate by THE SPORTS BUSINESS DAILY, only 34 Senators were willing to take even an anonymous stand on lifting the ban (all 100 Senate offices were contacted over the Labor Day recess). Among those that responded, there was little consensus or any indication of party-line uniformity: 20 favored revoking baseball's antitrust exemption (12 Republican, 8 Democrat) and 14 opposed (6 Republican, 8 Democrat). While the numbers signal a considerable undecided vote up for grabs by either side, there are discouraging signs for pro- union forces. Many of the "non-answers" came from traditionally pro-labor senators torn between trust-busting and protecting minor league interests in their home states. The Metzenbaum/Hatch bill could be taken up any time after the Senate resumes business today, either as a free standing piece of legislation or as an amendment to an existing bill. That would force each senator to vote on the measure. One high- level Metzenbaum staffer said: "I can't imagine any Senator willing to block a bill that would bring baseball back on the field. If they want to do that, let them do it publicly on the Senate floor. We are confident that if we have an up and down vote, with a promise from the players to play, that we will get the majority of votes." Baseball's owners, however, are ready for a legislative fight and confident of victory. MLB Dir. of Government Relations Gene Callahan: "We will be prepared." According to one staffer on the Senate's Judiciary Committee: "The baseball owners have an unruly amount of power up here. All they need is 24 hours to beat this bill." Another Judiciary Committee staffer predicts Metzenbaum will "get hammered on the floor -- maybe 20 votes maximum": "It won't even end the strike, it will just bring about more court action." MLB's financial support of the minor leagues is a powerful stick for the owners. In fact, many senators reluctant to take a position cited fear of losing their minor league teams. As Callahan explains it, lifting the ban "would destroy Class A ball and would wipe out the Carolina League." Without players beholden to their team for six years, the majors "are not going to spend that kind of money on player development," said Callahan, who puts the subsidy from MLB to the minor leagues at $211M. John Fithian, an attorney with Patton, Boggs & Blow and Washington counsel to the MLBPA, acknowledges the force behind MLB's payment to the minors, noting that before the subsidy agreement, the minors favored lifting the ban. Despite the long odds, Fithian said the MLBPA intends to press on: "Eventually this legislation will get passed. Maybe not now, but the ground work we are setting is important. ... If we don't get the antitrust exemption lifted, another strike will happen again down the road."