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In just five short days, replacement baseball players are supposed to take the field to open the regular season. There were increasing indications Monday that they may never make it.

A federal judge in New York, Sonia Sotomayor, on Monday scheduled a hearing for Friday on whether to issue an injunction, which could lead to the end of the 229-day-old strike.

Yet another round of collective-bargaining negotiations began Monday night in New York, but what is more likely to end this strike, at least for this year, is the injunction, which is being sought by the National Labor Relations Board.

The scenario is this:

If the injunction is granted, it would restore many of baseball's old work rules governing salary arbitration and free agency.

If those rules are back in place, the players will call off their strike. And player reps will assemble in New York on Wednesday to pass a resolution to that effect.

Then owners would need 21 votes to lock the players out. And the buzz throughout baseball Monday was that the owners wouldn't be able to get those 21 votes.

Some hard-line owners believe those votes are there. But it would take only eight votes to block a lockout. And at least five teams -- the Orioles, Blue Jays, Mets, Dodgers and Yankees -- have disagreed with the replacement-player strategy from the beginning. But even several moderates no longer seem worried about allowing the players to come back under the old rules.

One prominent baseball man even went so far as to suggest Monday, "I don't think a lockout is part of the strategy now."

There are reasons to believe that some owners would prefer a decision that resolves this mess before opening day, reasons connected to their checking accounts.

If the replacements ever play a game that counts, each team would owe each of its 32 replacement players at least another $25,000 apiece -- a $5,000 opening-day bonus and $20,000 each in severance pay if they're sent home. They would owe the replacements neither of those amounts if they don't start the season.

So the price tag if replacement opening day takes place is at least $800,000 per team, not even including salaries -- even if those replacements play just one game.

A growing number of owners also appear to have concluded that playing this season with the real players -- even under the old rules -- isn't as bad an option as it sounds.

Even with the old salary-arbitration system and free-agent market back in effect, players still will take an enormous financial hit -- because teams have lost so much money during the strike.

"They can make any system work for them," one player agent conceded yesterday, "if they create a bad enough environment -- which they've done."

So the nearly 200 free agents still on the market will find that those multimillion-dollar deals of the past aren't there anymore. And most marginal players who try to drive a hard bargain in arbitration probably would be simply released and dumped into the overloaded, underfunded free-agent market.

The only condition owners probably would ask for in return for letting the players come back is a no-strike pledge. And several sources on the players' side suggest that the union now might give that pledge.

That would get the season in motion with the real players and expanded 28-man rosters, after a 21-day spring training. And the no-strike pledge would assure everyone that unlike last season, this season actually would have a grand finale.

There was little optimism Monday night that a settlement was in the offing as formal talks resumed for the first time since March 4.

The owners did make a new proposal. However, it was similar in most respects to the suggested proposal made by mediator William J. Usery in January, which the players flatly rejected.

Owners did offer to play the 1995 season under the old rules. And they made a softened luxury-tax proposal, in which payrolls that exceeded about $44 million (or 8 percent above the average payroll) would be taxed at a rate of 50 percent.

Owners also offered either to keep the current system of salary arbitration and free agency, or to eliminate arbitration and lower the threshold for unrestricted free agency from six years to four. In their last offer, owners wanted to eliminate arbitration in exchange for restricted free agency for those with four to six years of service.

"This offer has got to be accepted by this weekend," acting commissioner Bud Selig said.

Union officials didn't hold a news conference Monday night. However, some on the players' side were disappointed that Selig had said during the meeting that the offer was as far as management could move. Others thought that was only a normal bargaining posture.

"I'll get back to Bud tomorrow," union head Donald Fehr said.

Even if the new proposal produces some seldom-seen meaningful talk on tax rates and thresholds, sources on each side said there still could be a major hang-up: namely, the union's insistence that, after three years, the tax either would disappear or would be evaluated by arbitrators.

"If the tax disappears, what are we doing this for?" wondered one management source.

And a source on the players' side said that if the owners insist on a permanent tax, "there's nothing to talk about."

Nevertheless, the union would be more reluctant than ever about trashing any management proposals this week -- because it wouldn't want to take a chance that owners could declare an impasse and implement a new system before the federal court rules on the injunction.

In a poll commissioned by the Associated Press, baseball fans said they intend to make both sides pay for the strike.

A third say they'll watch and attend fewer games with replacement players, and 28 percent expect their interest to remain diminished even when the strike ends.

The 34 percent who said they would attend fewer games was up 6 points from an AP poll taken in early December. Thirty-eight percent say they will watch fewer games on television, a 10-point increase from the previous poll.

Neither side in baseball's contract dispute has great support. Among all adults polled, 26 percent support the players, 34 percent back the owners and an unusually large 40 percent volunteered that they aren't sure or support neither side.

The poll was taken March 15-19 by ICR Survey Research Group of Media, Pa., part of AUS Consultants.

Bisons win on an error

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Luis Lopez scored on a Tucson error in the top of the ninth to give the Buffalo Bisons a 2-1 victory over the Toros on Monday afternoon.

Trailing, 1-0, going into the ninth, Torey Lovullo tied the game when Ed Smith bounced into a bases-loaded double play. Ernest Riles then reached on an error, scoring Lopez from third base.

Winning pitcher Eric Bell (1-0) scattered three hits and struck out four in four innings of relief, while Mike Humphrey and Miguel Flores had two hits each. Buffalo (3-5-1) plays the Indianapolis Indians in Winter Haven, Fla., at 1 p.m. today.

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