BASEBALL Season to start in three weeks

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The Independent Online
BASEBALL

RUPERT CORNWELL

reports from Washington

The era of "scab ball" has ended before it properly began, as the owners of major league clubs dismissed the replacement players with whom they had planned to start the 1995 season, and seemed ready to permit a shortened normal season with regular players to start in three weeks' time.

Within 24 hours of Friday's injunction against the owners for unfair labour practices, the acting Commissioner, Bud Selig, had called off the Florida Marlins-New York Mets opening game scheduled for last night in Miami, live on national television and featuring replacement players, to which 35,000 tickets had been sold.

By midnight on Saturday this motley collection of minor leaguers, has- beens and dreamers had been released by every club and the millions that awaited them in major leagues were gone.

Yesterday, word was that the players' union and owners had informally agreed to start on 26 April a regular season shortened to 144 games from the usual 162. This left just one obstacle in the way of an end to the longest, costliest labour dispute in the history of professional sports - last night's owners meeting in Chicago at which the clubs could respond to the players' decision to call off their 233-day strike by imposing a lock-out of their own.

Such a move would require the support of 21 of the 28 clubs, which is highly unlikely. "My guess is we're not going to lock out," George Steinbrenner, the owner of the New York Yankees, said. Despite those who have seen the stoppage as a means of crushing the players' union completely, the legal and financial risks of a lock-out are daunting.

As it is, the owners say they have already lost $700m (£430m) as a result of the strike which started last 12 August and wiped out the 1994 play- offs and World Series. If a lock-out was imposed and then struck down by the courts, the clubs would be liable to back pay for the players, totalling $5m (£3m) a day.

Moreover, the two sides have been narrowing their differences over the basic sticking point, the payroll tax sought by the owners to protect the poorer clubs, but which the players insist is a thinly disguised salary cap. The owners want a 50 per cent tax on payrolls over $44m (£27m). The players, in their first serious offer, have proposed a 25 per cent tax on payrolls over $54m (£33.3m). Though the gulf is wide, good faith negotiating could produce a deal within weeks.

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