LOS ANGELES -- Baseball owners used to be a conservative lot. Change came slowly, if at all, and major change came only when the tide of history no longer could be restrained.
Now, the game is changing so rapidly that it is starting to get ahead of itself.
The owners voted unanimously yesterday to approve interleague play in 1997, even though they have no assurance that the Major League Baseball Players Association will go along with the plan and no tangible proof that it will provide the economic bonanza that would justify it.
The new format calls for each team to play 15 or 16 interleague nTC games next year, depending on the number of teams in its division. But the proposal, which was cleared by baseball's Executive Council on Tuesday night and presented to the full ownership on the final day of the quarterly owners meeting, addresses only the 1997 season and does not spell out how the sport will solve the designated hitter issue.
That will be determined in negotiations with the players union.
Nevertheless, interim commissioner Bud Selig applauded the decision as another historic step forward for a sport that turned the 1990s into a decade of sweeping change. The National League expanded in 1993 and the leagues realigned into three )) divisions. The owners recently awarded two more expansion franchises and expanded the postseason format to include two wild-card teams. Now interleague play, which eventually could lead to the elimination of the designated hitter rule . . . or the implementation of the DH rule in the NL.
"I think this speaks volumes about how well these owners work together as a group," Selig said. "For years we've heard that we were hidebound, unwilling to move and unwilling to adjust. We've taken things that have been discussed for years and we're doing them. It's been a very rewarding day."
The experimental inter league for mat quickly emerged as the most important issue on the agenda at the three-day meeting, but the owners also made several other significant decisions. They:
* Unanimously approved the Walt Disney Co.'s purchase of a 25 percent interest in the California Angels, despite an escape clause that allows Disney to back out of the deal if it cannot strike a stadium renovation deal with the city of Anaheim within 60 days.
* Ratified their new television contract and approved a new Major League Properties deal.
* Delayed action on the proposed sale of the Pittsburgh Pirates until a number of financial details can be ironed out.
The owners also got a briefing on the labor situation from new management negotiator Randy Levine, whose job may have gotten a little tougher with the interleague approval. The players union seems unlikely to put up significant resistance to the plan, but union leaders have hinted that they may ask for the standardization of the DH rule in return.
That's why it seemed curious that the owners would move so quickly on the issue and hand the players a free bargaining chip, but Selig insisted that it was not a tactical error.
"Somebody has to take the first step," he said. "We know what we have to do, and both sides need this. These are issues that are in both parties' best interests. We've done it and we'll send it to the players union. Do I think we have weakened our position? No, I think we have not.
"Every fan poll we've taken has shown that the fans are for interleague play. We're doing what our fans want. I don't think we really have a debate with the players association on this issue."
Philadelphia Phillies president Bill Giles indicated earlier in the week that the DH would be employed only in games played at American League sites -- the same way it is in spring training and the World Series.
There has been speculation that interleague play would lead to the elimination of the DH, but that would be a major point of contention with the union. There also has been talk of standardizing the rule, but that would meet with stiff resistance from NL clubs. The World Series solution appears to be the only workable option.
The 1997 experiment would call for regionalized interleague competition, with each AL East team playing a three-game series against each NL East team, for instance. The four-team West divisions would play 16 interleague games -- four each against the teams in the other West division.
Selig said that the plan was approved only for 1997, but no one seems to believe it will be a one-year experiment.
"It specifically said it will be done as an experiment," said San Francisco Giants owner Peter McGowan, "but it would be hard to do it for only one year because you need to have the  schedule out halfway through the season. So I think it almost has to be a two-year experiment."
Phillies co-general partner David Montgomery, a member of baseball's schedule format committee, indicated that the owners would start with a "clean slate" in 1998, but Selig and other owners said it had been decided that the divisional matchups would rotate after 1997 to assure that fans in each city get to see every team from the other league.
If that's true, it all but guarantees that each league will get one of the expansion teams, so that the six divisions will each have the same number of teams.
NOTES: Today is the day that players and their clubs exchange arbitration numbers. The Orioles will trade figures with pitchers Scott Erickson, Kent Mercker and Arthur Rhodes. General manager Pat Gillick and assistant GM Kevin Malone remained in Los Angeles last night, but would not rule out the possibility that one or more of the contracts would be settled today. . . . Malone confirmed that the Orioles are interested in signing Erickson to a multi-year deal, if the numbers make sense. That doesn't have to happen today. The club can negotiate with each of its arbitration-eligible players right up to the moment that the arbitrator renders a decision.
How the Orioles' 1997 schedule would look with interleague play:
Vs. AL East: 12 games each against Boston, Detroit, New York Yankees, Toronto. Total: 48.
Vs. AL Central: 11 games each against Chicago, Cleveland, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Minnesota. Total: 55.
Vs. AL West: 11 games each against California, Oakland, Seattle, Texas. Total: 44.
Vs. NL East: 3 games each against Atlanta, Florida, Montreal, New York Mets, Philadelphia. Total: 15.