Baseball Gets Close to a Deal--Maybe : Labor: Fehr seems optimistic, Selig is more low key as opener is only days away.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As they continued to close in on Sunday night's scheduled opener of the 1995 baseball season with replacement players and this morning's court hearing on an injunction request that could end the 7 1/2-month strike, union leader Donald Fehr emerged from a negotiating session with acting Commissioner Bud Selig on Thursday night to express the rare view that owners and players may be finally closing in on. . . .

Well, if the dour Fehr felt it is still premature to say they are closing in on a bargaining agreement, he did say they are close to agreement on many of the issues essential to an agreement.

"In my judgment, we're at or near agreement on a lot of issues," he said. "I think we're at a stage where it ought to be conceded that we're making progress, but that's not to say I'm optimistic or pessimistic. I'm out of the prediction business."

In presenting its response to the owners' proposal of Monday night, the union narrowed the gap on the threshold level at which the pivotal payroll tax would kick in, but there is still a significant difference on the rate.

The union, previously at 25% on all payroll above $54.1 million, is now at 25% on all payroll above $50 million.

Based on 1994 projections, six teams--the Atlanta Braves, Chicago White Sox, Detroit Tigers, New York Yankees, San Francisco Giants and Toronto Blue Jays--would have been taxed under the union proposal.

"Those teams are market leaders, so it's not insignificant at all," Fehr said of the potential deterrent to free-agent spending and ongoing salary growth.

The owners, however, proposed a 50% tax on all payroll above $44 million, which would have affected 12 teams and, in the union's view, is the equivalent of a salary cap.

Will the owners respond with a counter to the union's counter, or have they gone as far as they can go, as Selig suggested Monday night?

Selig wasn't saying Thursday night. He refused to evaluate the union's proposal, saying he would be in touch with his negotiating committee and would get back to Fehr today.

The Brewers' owner flew to New York in his private plane Thursday afternoon and returned to Milwaukee late Thursday night, after the two-hour negotiating session, but not before displaying a degree of anger when asked why he hadn't brought his negotiating committee with him, considering the opening-day time restraints.

He acknowledged that each day is crucial now but said:

"My negotiating committee was here Monday, Tuesday and into Wednesday, waiting patiently for the union's response. I'm not going to be critical of the other side because I don't want to inflame the process any more than it is, but I'm tired of the constant criticism of the owners. If I wanted to write a critique of the week I could do it."

Sources on both sides believe the negotiations will resume at an intense level Saturday. Fehr said the union is prepared to return to the table and stay there. He said the union will accept the owners' Monday offer to retain the current system of free agency and salary arbitration and that he believes there is agreement or near-agreement on benefits, the joint growth fund and expansion, among other issues.

The tax--and the union's desire to eliminate it after three years--are the key hurdles.

"At long last we need to reach a collective bargaining agreement, and that's regardless of what happens in court tomorrow," Fehr said, referring to U.S. District Court Judge Sonia Sotomayor's hearing on the National Labor Relations Board's request for an injunction forcing owners to reinstate key provisions--arbitration, free agent bidding and the anti-collusion clause--of the expired agreement.

Fehr confirmed in a letter to Selig on Thursday that the players will end the strike and return to work if the NLRB obtains the injunction.

Selig faxed a letter back in which he said the clubs would accept the players' offer to return, but a union official described it strictly as a "cute legal gimmick," since the offer was extended only if Fehr agreed to the owners' interpretation of the issues involved in the injunction hearing.

Barring a settlement, the key question is: Will the owners institute a lockout if the players try to return under the protection of an injunction? Can the owners get the 21 votes?

In a conference call Tuesday, it was learned that general managers were asked how their clubs would vote on a lockout.

The result: 23-5 in favor, but 18-10 against if the union pledged not to strike in 1995.

Meanwhile, in other developments Thursday:

--The owners, in a conference call, officially approved the use of replacement players and later released a statement saying that all games involving replacement players will count toward the division and league championships.

The announced vote on the use of replacement players was 26-2, with the Baltimore Orioles and Blue Jays opposing. The Orioles, of course, will not field a replacement team, and the Blue Jays are being forced to play in a spring training stadium in Florida because of restrictions against the use of replacement workers in the province of Ontario.

--The American League announced that it has ordered the White Sox and Texas Rangers to cancel travel plans to Baltimore for the first two series of the year, providing the season opens with replacement players.

Since either an injunction or settlement could allow major league players to return for delayed season openers, the league will wait until Sunday to announce penalties against the Orioles and owner Peter Angelos for the refusal to field a replacement team.

If the sanctions are necessary, however, the league is expected to go lightly. It is expected that the Orioles will be placed in an inactive or forfeit status, preserving Cal Ripken Jr.'s consecutive games playing streak.

--Boston Red Sox chairman John Harrington, a key member of the owners' negotiating committee, said from Florida that it is now 50-50 that the season will open as scheduled with replacement players.

* FREEWAY SERIES

The replacement Angels and Dodgers will continue their traditional exhibition rivalry beginning tonight in Anaheim Stadium. C12

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