Without a miracle 11th-hour solution, something that neither side appears willing to produce, major league baseball players will strike Tuesday.
Negotiators for the owners and players met for about 90 minutes today, but were unable to come to an agreement to avert the second strike in five years.
"This is the next-closest thing to a strike," Donald Fehr, acting executive director of the Major League Players Association, said just before midnight tonight. "I don't want to say miracles are impossible, but it does look that way."
The last strike, in 1981, lasted 50 days and caused 712 games to be canceled.
Each side said it would be available if the other had requested a meeting tonight, but neither said it would give in on salary arbitration, which has become the central issue.
Late tonight, Commissioner Peter Ueberroth asked Lee MacPhail and Barry Rona of management's Player Relations Committee to contact the players union to seek the resumption of negotiations at the earliest possible time. "The fans deserve the last ounce of everyone's energy to resolve the current impass," Ueberroth said.
The owners' spokesman, Bob Fishel, said that after Ueberroth's request, MacPhail phoned the union to request a meeting. The union called back a half-hour later and arranged the meeting. The time and place of the meeting were not announced.
If an agreement is reached -- and there was no indication the sides had changed positions -- the strike would be averted, although some players will be unable to return in time for games Tuesday night. The official deadline is the start of Tuesday's games at 7:35 p.m.
The meeting would be informal, according to Fishel, and likely would include MacPhail, Rona and Fehr, as well as Marvin Miller, consultant to the union, and Mark Belanger, assistant to Fehr.
Fehr earlier today outlined specifics of a proposal the owners rejected Sunday. "I have no reason to believe that the owners will make a counterproposal," he said. "I'm not saying they won't, but I have no reason to believe that they will."
Fehr said that unless there was a last-minute solution, after tonight's games players "will make their own decisions about going to the next city, going home or going fishing."
MacPhail, chief negotiator for the owners as head of the Player Relations Committee, opened a 6 p.m. news conference today by saying, "I hope someday we will meet under more auspicious circumstances, but as far as today goes . . . "
Ueberroth has talked with both sides in the last few days, but apparently was unable to effect any change in the stance of either.
Asked whether he would consider postponing the strike if Ueberroth asked him to, Fehr responded, "I don't want to say 100 percent no to anything. But it's hard to visualize the circumstances he would do it. Giving an extension only erodes the players' bargaining power."
Fehr continued, "I understand why the commissioner would want to, but that does not mean we have to agree with him."
Under the plan proposed by Fehr Sunday, the union would drop its demand that the owners contribute one-third ($60 million annually) of the national television package to the players' pension and benefit fund.
The players traditionally have received one-third of the national television package. The current six-year deal, signed before the 1984 season, is worth about $1.1 billion.
Fehr said the union would accept about $40 million a year, or about $125 million over the life of the contract. But the union stipulated the $20 million difference must go to teams that owners have said are in financial trouble.
Sunday, MacPhail rejected the proposal without asking about specific numbers because the players' plan included keeping current salary arbitration agreements.
"Their proposal really doesn't have much significance," he said, "because we knew they would come off the one-third. And the number they came up with was a distinct disappointment. Salary arbitration is an extremely important issue. The clubs feel very strongly that there has to be a change in the system or baseball will eventually go down the drain."
The players originally wanted to ease the eligibility requirement for arbitration from two years to just under two. The owners want to raise the eligibility to three years and place a 100 percent limit on the size of salary increase an arbitrator can award.
"Our proposal to break the logjam," Fehr said, "is to tell (the owners) to keep their two-thirds, with another $125 million and we said to use the $125 million to help the teams that need it. As far as I can tell, their answer is, 'We're not interested.' . . .
"If they're really interested in helping the weak clubs, you don't turn down dollars that can help them. If they're not interested in that, if they're interested in making concessions to the Dodgers (one of the richest teams), you don't."
MacPhail denied Fehr's contention that the owners are trying to "put the players in their place."
"That's not the case at all," MacPhail said. "We like the place the players are at -- out in the field and being compensated for it."
In responding to the union's latest proposal, he said it did not go far enough.
"They handed us their paper (proposal), which basically calls for a 163 percent increase in the clubs' contribution to the Benefit Plan," MacPhail said. "Over six years, this would total about $152 million more in club contributions. They coupled this with saying that there was absolutely no way they would consider any changes in our salary arbitration system.
"We have stated that our modest aim was to move the clubs toward a break-even position by the end of the 1988 season," MacPhail continued.
Both sides say they do not want a strike, but neither would say how long one might last, and what effects it might have on the season.
"I make no bets at all on how long it will last," Fehr said.
"There would have to be a reasonable length of time left to have a decent pennant race," MacPhail said. "You can't just open the gate and have a league championship and a World Series. It isn't fair to the fan."