Play Ball? Major League Salaries At Plate as Season Opener Nears

FOR more than seven months now, major-league baseball has looked like a post-fall Humpty Dumpty, shattered with little hope of repair. Sporadic efforts to end a bitter players strike and put the professional game back together again have yielded little. Yet with Sunday's Opening Night (Mets vs. Marlins) approaching, there is a shard of hope. More on that in a minute.

The base-line issue, not surprisingly, is money -- who's making it, who's losing it, who has the right to more.

''Right now,'' says Houston Astros general manager Bob Watson, ''the players like the way it is, and obviously they should like it. The average guy makes $1.2 million.''

To say the least, there is a lot of confusion because, unlike batting averages, there's more ''play'' in the numbers.

Talks focus on team luxury taxes and free agency, concepts as obtuse as the infield fly rule. Further clouding the picture are efforts in Congress to lift baseball's longstanding antitrust exemption.

In a positive note, proposals among the disputants this week have put the two sides ''on the same continent,'' a union official says. A National Labor Relations Board ruling that has come down against the team owners also could have an impact.

A United States District Court in New York is scheduled to scrutinize this ruling today, and herein lies a potential turning point that could usher in real major-league baseball for the 1995 season. The court could decide that the club owners need to revert to their prestrike contract with the players while the two sides hammer out a new pact.

''If the prior terms and conditions of employment are restored effectively by the injunction,'' says union chief Donald Fehr, ''the players will end the strike and return to work.''

The owners, however, do not welcome this approach and might call for a lockout. In their opinion, baseball needs to change course economically, largely by controlling salaries.

Nonetheless, they have no intention of letting this turn into a ''silent spring.'' Replacement teams, comprised of recycled big-leaguers and willing, thick-skinned minor leaguers, have been in training for more than a month in Florida and Arizona and now are primed to hold the fort in nearly every major-league ballpark. There are two exceptions.

The Toronto Blue Jays will use their 6,200-seat spring training stadium in Dunedin, Fla., because playing with replacement players would break Ontario labor laws. The Baltimore Orioles, on principle, will simply not field a replacement team.

Oriole owner Peter Angelos doesn't want to jeopardize shortstop Cal Ripken's bid to top an ''unbreakable'' record. Mr. Ripken is just 122 games shy of surpassing Lou Gehrig's record of playing in 2,130 consecutive games, but Ripken, who stands firmly with the striking players, would see his streak snapped if replacement Orioles took the field.

Yes, this season could be as quirky as a good knuckleball. And unless the regular major leaguers rush or are rushed back, printed programs will be an absolute fan necessity. ''Who's on first?'' would assume new relevance.

Replacement lineups would be almost void of known entities, a fact that most clubs plan to admit with cut-rate ticket prices.

Even so, attendance could be meager judging from a large dropoff in spring training crowds. Some fans no doubt stayed away after seeing media accounts that left the impression that replacement rosters were filled with butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers. In fact, most have professional baseball experience.

Nick Cafardo, Boston Globe writer on the Red Sox, says this may be like watching community, rather than Broadway theater, in which ''you see legs moving slower down the basepaths, a pitch coming into the cather at 10 m.p.h. slower, or fly balls reaching the warning track but few getting over the fence.''

A recent Associated Press poll reflects public division toward the developments in baseball. Twenty-six percent of those polled said they supported the players, 34 percent the owners, and 28 percent neither side. Close to half said they would attend about the same number of games if replacement players are used.

In Boston, where Elizabeth Dooley has not missed a Red Sox home game in 51 years, the team has already sold 27,000 seats for the team's April 10 home opener.

To have come this close to having replacement baseball, some might want the chance to judge for themselves. In effect, replacement games could serve as a plebiscite, in which fans, who often complain about seven-figure player salaries, could put their money where their mouth is.

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