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About 20 minutes before the first pitch of the 1995 season had
been scheduled to be thrown on Sunday night, acting baseball
commissioner Bud Selig stood at a podium in a Chicago hotel and
instead tossed out this: The owners were ``delighted'' to welcome
back their prodigal players after a 232-day strike. Does that
qualify as the ceremonial first bull? After all, the owners
attained this state of euphoria only after being dealt an
embarrassing defeat by U.S. district court judge Sonia Sotomayor
two days earlier and only after predicting, in an appeal of
Sotomayor's ruling, that taking the players back under such
circumstances would likely wipe out another World Series and drive
some clubs into bankruptcy. How delightful.

Yes, major league baseball is back, in the manner of oppressive
humidity, a persistent skin rash or that pinging noise underneath
your car's hood. Such is the game's state of affairs that Selig's
``play ball'' announcement caused more anxiety than celebration.

That's because baseball is hardly better off than the last time it
was around, almost eight months ago. The owners and players still
have no collective bargaining agreement, no mutual trust and no
chance at preserving the integrity of a 162-game season. Not since
Julia and Lyle has a marriage been greeted by so many gloomy
predictions that it will never last.

``No one rests easy until there is a settlement, and that includes
the players as well as the fans and owners,'' says Los Angeles
Dodger catcher Mike Piazza. ``We're not popping any champagne
corks or sending any flowers, believe me. Even though we're happy
to be back playing baseball, there are a lot of quiet, reserved
feelings about what might happen. I mean, the owners could give us
spring training money and lock us out later.''

Likewise, many owners fear that allowing the players to return
without an agreement opens the door for them to strike again at
their convenience. Moreover, the owners must continue to pay
players under the old economic system (with revenue sharing among
the owners still not in sight), even though the strike has
siphoned out of the game hundreds of millions of dollars in

``I don't think the game's any better off,'' Montreal Expo general
manager Kevin Malone says of the rancorous work stoppage. ``What
good has come out of it? For either side? Nothing. I felt like our
team was hurt the worst last year by the strike. [The Expos had
the best record in baseball when the players walked out on Aug.
12.] This just adds insult to injury. I didn't think it could get
much worse. Now I think I might be wrong.''

``All of a sudden in July or August we could be in the same
situation with a strike,'' says Florida Marlin president Don
Smiley. ``To be honest, I don't think our fans would come back in
that situation. I think that's too much for them.''

The players' mandatory reporting date is this Friday, at which
time 29 camps (one for each of the 28 clubs and another, in
Homestead, Fla., available to about 100 free agents awaiting
offers) are expected to be geared up for three weeks of spring

Even though formal workouts weren't allowed until Wednesday, a few
players trickled into empty spring training complexes on Sunday
and Monday, including American League batting champion Paul
O'Neill of the New York Yankees. When a fan asked O'Neill to sign
an autograph, he replied, ``It's been so long, I'd love to.'' Five
members of the Philadelphia Phillies were in camp on Monday
morning, including centerfielder Lenny Dykstra, who rolled into
the clubhouse and asked, ``Where's the rest of the troops, dude?
It's not like they didn't have enough time to get here. Eight
months.'' Soon he was asking the clubhouse boy to get him a cup of
coffee and two packs of cigarettes.

``The fans paid the biggest price during this whole thing,''
Dykstra said. ``For the first time in my career I really felt like
we were----the fans. Without them there's no big salaries,
no Porsches.''

Opening Day for a 144-game season -- with just as many asterisks,
to be sure -- is set for April 26. That would tentatively put
Baltimore Oriole shortstop CalRipken Jr. on schedule to break
Lou Gehrig's consecutive-game playing streak onSept. 8 in

More immediately, clubs have only three frenzied weeks to set
their rosters and payrolls, a task that normally takes three
months. Montreal, for instance, has only one player under
contract, catcher Darrin Fletcher. Worse, the Expos and other
small-revenue clubs now find themselves in greater distress than
before in terms of competing financially with the big-revenue
clubs. ``We've already gone to the bank a few times to get loans
to keep the club running,'' Malone says. ``I don't think we can
keep going back.'' That's why Montreal is likely to lose
outfielder Larry Walker through free agency, and possibly
outfielder Marquis Grissom and pitchers Ken Hill and John
Wetteland through trades.

``You may see a lot of deals happen this week,'' says Malone, who
expects his team to be the youngest and his payroll to be the
lowest in the majors this year. ``I'm ready. The question now is
how many clubs have the money to take on those kinds of salaries.
It does limit your options.''

Says Phillie president Bill Giles, ``The irony is the players
don't like the idea of a drag on salaries, but they've already put
the biggest drag on salaries ever created. The pie is shrinking.''

Another National League executive predicts that there will be few
plum contracts for free agents, saying, ``I'd say five, 10, 15
free agents will get good ones. Then there will be a lot of Jody
Reeds.'' That would mean take-it-or-leave-it offers well below
player expectations and, in many cases, at significant cuts in

These bleak assessments were prompted by fast-unfolding events
that were jarring even by baseball's standards. The most important
development occurred last Friday morning when Sotomayor granted
the National Labor Relations Board's request for a preliminary
injunction against the owners. She most charitably characterized
the owners' position as ``inconsistent'' and ordered them to
restore free-agent bidding, salary arbitration and the
anticollusion rules of baseball's expired collective bargaining
agreement. The owners -- at the advice of their legal team, led by
general counsel Chuck O'Connor -- had unilaterally rescinded those
provisions on Feb. 6.

``When a contract ends, the parties must not alter mandatory
subjects until a new agreement or a good-faith impasse is
reached,'' Sotomayor said in announcing her decision. ``The board
believes that the Feb. 6 changes concerned mandatory subjects, and
they are entitled to deference in their legal opinion.''

``Disastrous,'' is how one American League owner rated the
performance of his side's lawyers. In another legal misstep, the
owners had implemented a salary cap in late December and withdrawn
it five weeks later in the face of likely NLRB opposition. Little
wonder, then, that the owners decided on Sunday, without even
putting the matter to a vote, not to run the legal and financial
risk of locking out the players. A lockout had no chance of
winning approval because on Dec. 7, 1992, the same day the owners
voted 15-13 to reopen the collective bargaining agreement, they
also changed the voting requirement for a lockout from a majority
(15 votes) to three quarters (21).

``The owners,'' said Billy Fultz, a replacement pitcher with the
Cincinnati Reds, referring to Sotomayor's ruling, ``got a high
fastball under the chin, and their knees buckled.''

The fantasy camp known as replacement baseball died one minute
before midnight on Saturday -- April Fools' Day -- when clubs
terminated the contracts of replacement players. Only hours before
that the Marlin wannabes worked out at Miami's Joe Robbie Stadium
in anticipation of playing the ersatz New York Mets in the season
opener the next night. Many of them did so with compact cameras in
the back pockets of their uniforms, which they took out
occasionally to capture for posterity scenes in the plush
clubhouse and on the field. Others carried video cameras.

When shortstop Scott Southard, 23, who played Class A ball last
year, saw his expansive major league locker, he said, ``I'm going
to carve my name and leave a little message. It's going to say,
`How could you guys leave this place?' ''

Replacement players may not have provided very good baseball. And
they generally attracted sparse crowds everywhere but in
baseball-mad Denver, where 94,378 fans turned out for the first
two games ever played at Coors Field, exhibitions between the
substitute Colorado Rockies and Yankees. But they did bring a
sense of wonder and respect for the game that had otherwise been
missing all too frequently from their millionaire predecessors.
After the final replacement game last Saturday night in Los
Angeles, players in the uniforms of the Dodgers and California
Angels tipped their caps to what remained of a crowd of 25,577.

``I'd like to videotape one of these games,'' said Oakland A's
manager Tony LaRussa, ``to show our regular players what it was
like when they used to want to play.''

Said Piazza, ``I know our image has taken a beating. Hopefully,
we'll come out of this with a new appreciation for the support of
the fans.''

The replacement Marlins had ordered T-shirts that said WE HAVE NO
FEHR, a slogan that perhaps was more true than they realized.
Without representation - - by players' union head Donald Fehr or
anyone else -- replacement players were disposable pawns to the
owners, who owed them nothing upon their release other than their
original $5,000 signing bonuses and spring training expense money.
Had they played even one regular-season game, the scabs were
guaranteed at least another $25,000 in bonuses, the major league
minimum salary of $668.61 a day and severance money.

In a gracious display of appreciation the Marlins and the St.
Louis Cardinals paid their replacements the extra $25,000 anyway,
and several other teams proffered payments of between $2,000 and
$5,000 a man. Some teams were not so accommodating. The Expos gave
each of their replacements a travel bag and a game jersey as
parting gifts. However, about 15 of them, Malone said, will stay
on in Montreal's minor league system. The Cincinnati Reds gave
their players garbage bags to haul away their gear, though they
did assign 30 of their 32 players to the minor leagues.

``We knew this day was coming,'' said Matt Winters, a 35-year-old
Marlin replacement outfielder. ``But we got so close that I'm not
going to say it doesn't hurt. There's anger and relief all in one.
The relief is finally just knowing one way or another what your
status is.''

The cloud of uncertainty now has drifted over the major leaguers,
at least as long as there is no labor agreement. True, the owners
and players are much closer to a settlement than they were when
the strike began. Their significant differences have narrowed
virtually to one -- the luxury-tax percentage that clubs would
have to pay into a revenue-sharing pool on excessive payrolls --
but the gap on that issue is huge.

The owners want a 50% tax on payrolls above $44 million. The
players made the last move, dropping their asking threshold from
$54 million to $50 million but, to the considerable anger of the
owners, left their proposed tax rate at 25%. Based on 1994
payrolls, the players' plan would cause six teams to pay a total
of $4.7 million in taxes; the owners' plan would cause 11 teams to
pay a total of $33 million. ``We had been making progress,'' Fehr
says. ``I hope we don't allow too much time to go by.''

Not overjoyed by their shotgun marriage with the players, however,
the owners made ominous noises. Selig, who has been a replacement
commissioner for more than two years, reacted to the injunction by
saying it ``may represent a step backward in our negotiations for
a meaningful agreement with the players' union.'' And in its
appeal of the injunction the owners' crack legal team direly
warned, ``Major League Baseball will likely suffer its second
consecutive year of no playoffs, no World Series and, therefore,
irreparable damage to the credibility of the institution in the
eyes of its fans, advertisers, rights holders and other sources of
economic lifeblood. The damage caused by another disrupted season
will likely drive some clubs out of business. . . . Their teams
would be lost for good.''

All is not lost just yet. After all, it's not as if the owners
haven't been wrong before.

COLOR PHOTO:JON LEVY/AFPSelig (top, left) and Dykstra (top, right) weren't smiling, nor were the Dodger replacements, who took their final bows.[Bud Selig]COLOR PHOTO:CHUCK SOLOMON [see caption above--Lenny Dykstra being interviewed]COLOR PHOTO:MARK J. TERRILL/AP [see caption above--Dodger replacement players raising their hats to the fans]

COLOR PHOTO:TOM DIPACE The might-have-been Marlins taped their last workout for posterity.[Marlin replacement players taking pictures]

COLOR PHOTO:ROBB WILLIAMSON/REUTERWith two Coors Field crowds totaling 94,378, the Rockies' replacement stadium was a hit.[view of Coors Field packed with fans] COLOR PHOTO:RON KUNTZ/REUTERAt least one fan struck a blow against the players' return.[Cleveland Indians fan holding sign that consists of Indian holding "LOCK EM OUT THEY COULD STRIKE AGAIN" sign]