NEW YORK -- This was supposed to be Opening Day, but it appears that everything about the 1995 baseball season -- including the actual day that regular season games will begin -- remains open to question.
Baseball owners decided yesterday to cancel tonight's replacement opener between the New York Mets and Florida Marlins, and it became apparent last night that teams already are beginning to disband replacement rosters.
The Associated Press, citing an unnamed source, reported late last night that the players and owners had tentatively agreed to start the season on Wednesday, April 26, if there isn't a lockout.
It is not clear, however, whether the clubs are ready to welcome back major league players and begin a shortened season later this month.
Representatives of the 28 clubs are scheduled to meet today in Chicago to formulate a response to Friday's decision in federal court that temporarily restored the rules of the previous labor agreement and prompted the Major League Baseball Players Association to order its members back to work.
The owners could vote to stage a lockout and further aggravate the labor dispute, but they may decide that would be too risky in the immediate wake of the federal court ruling.
"I don't know what votes we'll take," acting commissioner Bud Selig said last night. "We'll discuss a number of scenarios and then decide."
The possible scenarios:
* The owners could welcome the players back, cancel remaining replacement games and delay the start of the season for three weeks while everyone gets in shape.
* They could move forward deliberately and hope that a federal appeals court quickly strikes down the injunction that has gutted their hardline bargaining position. A hearing on the owners' motion is scheduled for Tuesday.
* They could vote to lock the players out and extend the work stoppage in the hope of forcing a settlement, but might make the date contingent on a successful appeal.
They also may still go forward with replacement ball, even though there were indications last night that some teams were releasing players from their contracts and, in many cases, re-signing them to minor league deals.
According to the Associated Press, management's lawyers told the 28 teams to release all replacement players by 11:59 p.m. EST yesterday, but one ownership official said that teams would be in a position to recall players if necessary.
"They just told us the season was over," Indians catcher Pete Kuld said. "They're not going to have replacement games. Everybody got their travel orders."
It is also possible that the owners shuffled their rosters to save the $22 million in bonuses and guaranteed termination pay that teams were committed to pay the more than 800 players on replacement rosters if the season began on time.
Despite the flurry of activity, there remained little hope of a
negotiated settlement. After the federal court ruling, one hard-line owner said the injunction may have doomed baseball to "weeks and months" of continued labor strife.
The negotiations had progressed to the point where the players and owners were significantly apart on only a couple of key issues, and representatives on both sides were saying the dispute could be settled in a matter of days with a sincere bargaining effort.
Now, there seems to be little motivation to negotiate. The players have a court order that says they can play the 1995 season under the old rules, which is what they wanted in the first place. The owners are smarting from another embarrassing legal defeat and have spent the past two days trying to figure out some way to regain the upper hand.
Not that they have refused to comply with the injunction. Two members of baseball's operations committee -- Chicago Cubs President Andy MacPhail and Oakland Athletics General Manager Sandy Alderson -- spent yesterday in the union offices, discussing the mechanics of reimplementing the old economic system. And ownership attorney Chuck O'Connor sent a memo to individual clubs yesterday informing them they may resume signing players.
If there is no lockout, signed players are scheduled to begin reporting to spring training tomorrow and would have to be in camps by Wednesday. More than 100 unrestricted free agents are expected to open workouts at the unoccupied spring training complex in Homestead, Fla., where the union had scheduled training camp for its April barnstorming tour.
Management appears to be complying carefully with the federal court injunction, but union director Donald Fehr does not interpret that as an indication that they are preparing to end the work stoppage.
"No," he said, "but I don't read the opposite into it, either. They may be just complying with the injunction. I don't think we'll know if they are going to accept our offer [to return] until [today]."
Ownership negotiators also have not responded to the union's invitation to resume negotiations. Mr. Selig spoke with Mr. Fehr on Friday night, but there are no new collective bargaining sessions in the works.
"I'm neither surprised nor concerned," Mr. Fehr said. "With all of the back-to-work issues and the need to talk to their lawyers, I wouldn't have expected to hear more from them. Maybe we'll get lucky and go forward swimmingly. We'll see."
Mr. Fehr said the operations meetings were very businesslike, but the court ruling only figures to increase the friction that has been building between the players and owners throughout the longest work stoppage in professional sports history. Colorado Rockies owner Jerry McMorris said yesterday that there may be enough ownership resentment to fuel a lockout vote.
"I just counted it with two different owners," Mr. McMorris told the New York Times, "and I think it's going to be very close."
Mr. McMorris said he probably would vote against a lockout, and there are several other team owners who would like to see the season resume, but there still is no guarantee that eight clubs will step forward to prevent the 75 percent vote necessary to approve a lockout.
"My guess is that we're not going to lock out," New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner said on CBS last night. "That's just from one owner's standpoint, but I think the regular players will be back, maybe a 21-day spring training, open the season with major league players and hopefully get this mess negotiated for the public."
This marks the third time opening day was pushed back by a work stoppage. A strike in 1972 delayed it from April 1 to April 15, and a lockout in 1990 pushed it back from April 2 to April 9.
National League Senior Vice President Katy Feeney said that if there isn't a lockout, the schedule for each team would be cut from 162 games to the 139-145 range.