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Owners talking expansion as labor dispute grinds on


PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Major-league owners convened at the posh Breakers Hotel yesterday to work out final details for a two-team expansion in 1998, but baseball's bitter labor dispute is expected to cast a long shadow over the three-day meeting.

This normally would be a festive occasion. Potential ownership groups from Phoenix and Tampa/St. Petersburg, Fla., have worked and waited years to gain admittance into the major leagues, and each could see a civic dream come true soon this week.

Five prospective ownership groups -- including two from Northern Virginia -- yesterday gave 30-minute final presentations to Major League Baseball's expansion committee, which then briefed the Executive Council and recommended Phoenix and Tampa Bay. The recommendation could be put in front of the full ownership for a vote tomorrow.

"We're hoping to have an announcement at Thursday's press conference," said Boston Red Sox CEO John Harrington, chairman of the expansion committee.

It has been clear that the first two teams of a proposed four-team expansion will begin play in 1998 in Phoenix and Tampa Bay.

The two groups from Virginia and a group from Orlando, Fla., are jockeying for the two other franchises, which likely will be awarded next year and begin play soon after 2000.

Perhaps the labor dispute will be over by then, but it certainly has put a damper on the expansion proceedings. The full ownership will be briefed by the bargaining committee tomorrow -- and probably addressed by special mediator William J. Usery.

a,3 The agenda also could include a vote of the full ownership on the use of replacement players during the regular season and a briefing by American League president Gene Budig on the uncomfortable situation involving the Orioles.

The owners apparently are down to a couple of options for dealing with Peter Angelos' refusal to field a replacement team. They can force the Orioles to forfeit every replacement game or put together a replacement-replacement team to fulfill the club's scheduling obligations.

That decision is not on the agenda, but the issue could come up during the American League meeting today. Angelos, who is scheduled to arrive here today, has not been told whether he will be a subject of discussion. He is making the trip primarily to hear the bargaining committee's report on the labor dispute.

"I expect some constructive discussion on how to end this catastrophic dispute," Angelos said.

Angelos has expressed some reservations about expansion, but he probably will vote in favor of awarding the teams. He said last year that it would be unwise to expand until baseball solves its economic problems, but doesn't want to stand in the way of two cities that have worked hard to join the majors.

Last night's Executive Council meeting also included a briefing from the bargaining committee, which temporarily broke off negotiations with the players union to attend the meeting. No new negotiating sessions have been scheduled, but there has been speculation that the talks will resume next week in Chicago.

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