"I want to play baseball more than anything," said pitcher Orel Hershiser of the Los Angeles Dodgers, who attended yesterday's bargaining session. "But at this point, I can't see myself playing it for a long, long time."
The two sides were stalemated yesterday on the issue that has stalled progress for the last week - salary arbitration for younger players.
The Major League Players Association's top priority going into the talks was to restore arbitration eligibility to players with two years of experience. That was the rule before 1985, when the union, in a bargaining concession, agreed to limit salary arbitration to players with at least three years of experience.
The owners don't want to give back what they bargained for five years ago. They offered a new arbitration proposal yesterday, but, predictably, the two sides disagreed on what effect it would have.
The owners' latest plan would continue to limit arbitration to players with at least three years of service. It also would set a series of minimum base salaries for younger players - $75,000 for rookies, $100,000 for players after one year and $250,000 for players after two years.
Added to those bases would be an $8 million pot funded evenly by all 26 teams. The money would be divided among second- and third-year players based on their performance. A statistical system - much like the "pay-for- performance" plan that the owners took off the table last week - would determine each player's bonus.
Chuck O'Connor, the owners' chief negotiator, said that had the proposed system been in effect last season, the salary of the average player with between one and three years in the major leagues would have increased from $169,000 to $223,000.
Union officials disagreed.
"Any time you place limits on salaries, they go down," said Gene Orza, the union's chief counsel. "This is a proposal to players to have them make less money in a year where the sport is at its all-time healthiest. It's a giant step backwards."
The players were equally upset over a series of proposals to modify the existing salary-arbitration system, under which a qualifying player and his club can ask a neutral third party to settle their differences.
The owners' new plan placed a series of limitations on so-called ''comparables" - other players with whom a player in arbitration can compare himself for salary purposes.
Under the proposal, players could compare their salaries only with those of others playing the same position for the same number of years. In other words, a fourth-year shortstop could only ask the arbitrator to view his paycheck in terms of other fourth-year shortstops.
"One year, Harold Reynolds was the only third-year second baseman starting in baseball," said Donald Fehr, executive director of the Players Association, who was referring to a Seattle infielder. "Who's he supposed to use as a comparison?"
In addition, the owners sought to hold all arbitration hearings in one city, replace the single arbitrator with a three-member panel and seal all awards until the process is completed each February.
The third aspect was the most troublesome to the players.
One of the effects of the current system, in which arbitration decisions are announced over a three-week period, is that one case tends to have an impact on later cases.
Thus, when pitcher John Smiley of Pittsburgh won his case and was awarded $840,000 earlier this week, it presumably helped the case of pitcher David Cone of the New York Mets. Cone won his case yesterday and will receive $1.3 million for 1990.
In separate press briefings after yesterday's two-hour session, spokesmen for both sides voiced pessimism on whether a settlement would be reached in the near future. No bargaining session is planned for today, although both sides did not rule one out.
O'Connor said he planned to meet today with commissioner Fay Vincent and the six owners of the Player Relations Committee.
Fehr said that, starting tomorrow, he planned to travel around the country, meeting with players to update them on the talks. Such a move would probably freeze the process for 10 days to two weeks.
Opening day is scheduled for April 2.
"We're very close to the point where initial regular-season games will be implicated," Fehr said. "We're farther behind today than we were yesterday."
Likewise, O'Connor said, "It may well be that we've reached a point where some time off is needed. I'm satisfied that (management) has made a concerted effort to settle this. . . . We put a package out there that deserved a principled response, not just a yes or a no. I think, in time, we'll get it."
Asked whether yesterday's developments could affect the start of the season, O'Connor said, "It puts it more at risk. I would be less than candid if I didn't say that."