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Baseball Players End Strike; Owners on Deck : Sports: Decision follows a judge’s ruling in their favor and could pave the way for an end to the 232-day walkout. But owners may vote on a lockout.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Major league baseball players made an unconditional offer to end their 232-day old strike Friday, but that may not get them back on the field.

The owners may respond to the latest development with a lockout, in which case the season probably would begin with the replacement teams that were put together for spring training.

The players had voted last Wednesday to return to work if a federal judge granted the National Labor Relations Board’s request for a temporary injunction. The injunction was granted here Friday by U.S. District Judge Sonia Sotomayor, upholding the board’s claim of unfair labor practice by the owners and restoring all terms and conditions of the expired bargaining contract between players and owners.

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With the 1995 season scheduled to start tonight with replacement players, the owners will meet this afternoon in Chicago to discuss their options and possibly take a lockout vote.

An exchange of negotiating proposals last week had generated a degree of optimism in the protracted stalemate, but it is unlikely that there will be any attempt to resume negotiations before today’s meeting.

Union leader Donald Fehr, hopeful that the court ruling would be a turning point in the talks, said that “given the nature of the dispute” he would not be stunned if the owners implemented a lockout.

“However, it would be an obvious indication they want to continue the dispute,” he said.

Owners have acknowledged a willingness to delay the season as long as three weeks to give major league players a chance to get ready if a settlement were reached. But they have repeatedly said they have no desire to play another season under terms of the previous economic system, unless that one more season is part of a long-term agreement in which a new system kicks in after the first year.

A lockout is their primary weapon, but it is not certain they have the 21 votes they need to approve it. A lockout also carries enormous financial risks. If an administrative law judge ultimately finds the owners guilty of unfair labor practice in a hearing that begins May 22, owners could be liable for back pay, plus interest, for all major leaguers from the time the lockout was implemented.

But acting Commissioner Bud Selig has seldom put an issue to a vote without knowing he has the votes to get it through.

He released a statement Friday, saying that he was disappointed with the ruling and that it “may represent a step backward” in the negotiations.

“The two sides still have to settle their disagreements at the . . . table,” he said. “The economic uncertainty caused by delays . . . could have further crippling effects on the industry. Representatives of the 28 clubs will meet to discuss legal and practical options now available and will certainly give the players a timely answer to their offer to return to the field.”

In the meantime, the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals denied a request by management lawyers for an emergency stay of the injunction order, but the lawyers will return Tuesday to argue for a stay and an accelerated appeal.

In the appellate brief, club lawyers said the injunction could prove catastrophic, leading to a “second consecutive year of no playoffs, no World Series and . . . irreparable damage to the credibility of the institution in the eyes of its fans, advertisers, rights holders and other sources of economic lifeblood.”

Those views seem based on the possibility of the game ending up where it was when the players walked last Aug. 12--another season played under the previous work rules, with no labor agreement, sporadic negotiations and the possibility of another strike to forestall another attempt by the owners to declare an impasse and unilaterally implement a new economic system. Asked if the players would agree to end the strike and return to work with a no-strike pledge, Fehr refused comment Friday, but a management source said he has been told by Fehr that the union would agree if owners pledged not to implement their economic plan.

Owner Peter Angelos of the Baltimore Orioles hinted that owners talked about such an exchange during a conference call Friday.

“I believe there is a consensus among owners for a side understanding,” he said. “The ’95 season has to be completed and the World Series played. No work stoppage (by the players) and no unilateral action by ownership.”

Friday’s injunction ruling stemmed from the owners’ attempt to declare an impasse and implement a salary-cap system on Dec. 22. In charges brought by the union, the labor board ultimately cited the owners with a violation of the National Labor Relations Act for declaring an illegal impasse. But, in a move tantamount to a plea bargain with the board, the owners avoided sanctions on Feb. 3 by agreeing to withdraw the implemented system and restore the terms and conditions of the expired agreement.

Three days later, however, the owners’ Player Relations Committee said it would serve as the exclusive bargaining agent for the 28 clubs--the equivalent of a signing freeze--and unilaterally eliminated three key provisions of the agreement the owners had agreed to restore: salary arbitration, free-agent bidding and the anti-collusion clause.

The union brought new charges of unfair labor practice that the NLRB supported in its petition for an injunction that forces owners to restore those provisions.

In a 35-page brief filed with the court last week, NLRB lawyers wrote that there is reasonable cause to believe the owners’ unilateral changes again violated the National Labor Relations Act. The injunction, they wrote, “is necessary to prevent further harm to the collective bargaining process” and “to prevent further industrial unrest and strife.”

In the same courtroom in which former union leader Marvin Miller began to overturn baseball’s historic reserve system in 1970 by arguing for free agency on behalf of Curt Flood, Sotomayor agreed on all counts, saying the owners had done irrevocable damage to both the bargaining process and wage scale.


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