Baseball: Long battle beckons: Sympathy lacking as millionaire players strike out in costly battle against billionaire owners

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COUNTLESS substitutes have been urged upon baseball junkies: reading books, taking exercise, even talking to the wife. But last night was the moment of truth. The strike by America's major league players was to begin at midnight, and barring miracles, yesterday's 10 scheduled games were the last ones likely to be played in the foreseeable future.

The strike is baseball's eighth work stoppage since 1972, and potentially the longest, knocking out the remaining 52 days of the regular season, the play-offs, and even the World Series.

Neither side commands much sympathy - 'millionaires (the players) against billionaires (the owners)' is how the conflict is frequently described. The public, though, tends to blame the players - by a margin of 45 to 28 per cent according to one poll.

The costs of a long dispute will be huge. New York alone will lose revenue estimated at dollars 109m ( pounds 70m) if the Mets and the Yankees play no more games this season. Thousands of workers will lose income, though nowhere near as much as Bobby Bonilla, the Mets outfielder currently paid dollars 31,000 a day. President Bill Clinton yesterday urged the warring factions to resolve their differences, saying: 'There are a lot of not-so-little kids out there who know this is the most exciting season in 40 years.'

'Be prepared for a long strike,' one owner nevertheless warned after a final, ill-tempered 'negotiating' session in New York on Wednesday night. No talks are planned until the weekend at the earliest. 'There's no point having meetings if there's nothing to talk about,' the players' representative Don Fehr said. 'We've got better things to do.'