Baseball Faces Season Of Uncertainty Even With Players in Cleats

PEACE, peace, where there is no peace is the latest operative theme in baseball. A 234-day players' strike has ended, but its cause -- disagreement over a new collective bargaining agreement -- remains unresolved.

The awkward truce sounds as hollow as those empty-barreled metal bats the major leagues refuse to use. Acting commissioner Bud Selig wants an end to the negotiations, not just extra innings.

''Look, we need an agreement,'' he said at a Sunday press conference in Chicago. ''This ruling doesn't create anything. It makes no contribution toward a settlement.''

To this point, the players aren't giving any assurance that they won't walk out again, as they did last August. Without such a guarantee, visions of another shipwrecked season, with no playoffs or World Series, could dance in the heads of Joe and Jane Fan.

Trouble seeing eye-to-eye

The public would like to think that the two sides have learned some lessons about lose-lose haggling, which reportedly cost team owners more than $800 million. Yet contention seems part of the fabric of baseball these days. The major-league umpires, for example, are engaged in their own dispute with management.

The owners and players, however, have the most consistent trouble seeing eye-to-eye. Twenty-five years of on-and-off hostilities during the modern labor era have created an air of intransigence, much like the kind that divides unfriendly nations and ethnic groups.

Nonetheless, circumstances have conspired to put regular players back on the field starting tomorrow, when Spring Training II begins in Florida and Arizona. The season will open April 26 (instead of April 2) and each team will play 144 games, 18 fewer than normal.

In perhaps the most bizarre development, a special-training camp has been set up in Homestead, Fla., for more than 200 homeless free agents left in limbo by the unsettled labor environment. There are also hundreds of players looking to sign new contracts.

Ironically, the regular players' return was triggered by a court ruling issued on the day before April Fools' Day. Judge Sonia Sotomayor granted a National Labor Relations Board injunction that cited the owners for playing excessive hardball and ordered them to restore free-agent bidding and salary arbitration to the players.

The result: While Americans were ''springing ahead'' to daylight saving time, baseball was falling back -- back, for the time being, to the old contract rules; back, hopefully, to the bargaining table; and back, for sure, to work.

Welcome back

Many fans, skeptical of ''replacement ball,'' will welcome the return of the regulars, even if they are a little rusty. Others, however, had developed a sense of respect for, if not attachment to, the replacement players who were groomed as stand-ins during the strike.

At the end of Boston's final Grapefruit League game, some in the crowd of 3,317 actually rose to give the players a standing ovation as they came off the field.

''There's no crying in baseball,'' said Red Sox outfielder Aubrey Waggoner. ''I felt like it, though.''

Today, the team owners plan to appeal the unfair labor practices decision against them, but no player lockout is anticipated, regardless of the result.

Their main emphasis, it would appear, is to work out some mutually agreeable means of curbing spending on player contracts.

The owners have talked about a 50 percent luxury tax on team payrolls that exceed $44 million, while the players propose a 25 percent tax on payrolls over $50 million. The players want a higher ceiling with a lower penalty so that owners feel freer to spend.

While waiting for the season's first pitch, fans are left to ponder what might have been, including such far-out scenarios as that put forth in a prescient novel, ''The New York Yanquis,'' in which team owner George Bremenhaven (George Steinbrenner?) is so fed up with his millionaire ball players that he cuts a deal with Fidel Castro Ruz to stock his club with Cuban stars.

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