Major League Baseball's regular season is scheduled to begin in a week, but President Clinton won't be throwing out a ceremonial first pitch anywhere, and there won't be an Orioles game in Baltimore. And, most importantly, the major league baseball players won't be at any ballparks unless they buy tickets -- or walk picket lines.

Replacement player baseball -- regular season style, not just the comparatively harmless spring training version -- could become a reality next Sunday if a settlement to end the 227-day-old strike by the Major League Baseball Players Association isn't reached this week.

There was another development in the dispute last night, as the National Labor Relations Board scheduled an unusual Sunday meeting at which it will decide whether to allow its general counsel to seek an injunction from a U.S. district court that would restore baseball's former economic system. {Details on Page D4.}

No one in the game knows for certain what replacement baseball will look like. But virtually everyone -- even baseball's team owners -- agree it won't be pretty, and it will do further harm to the already damaged sport.

"The clubs simply have taken the approach we're going to go on with the best players available to us, if the alternatives are that or no baseball at all," Milwaukee Brewers owner and acting commissioner Bud Selig said recently.

Boston Red Sox general partner John Harrington -- the chairman of both the owners' negotiating committee and their operations committee, which has been charged with studying replacement player issues -- said last week from Fort Myers, Fla., that, with reduced ticket prices, the 28 major league teams are projecting crowds for regular season replacement games to be 40 to 50 percent as large as they'd be under normal circumstances.

If the entire 1995 season were to be played with replacements, Harrington said, the clubs project that they'd suffer operating losses of between $400 million and $600 million. But shutting down the industry completely would result in $600 million to $800 million in combined losses for the teams, Harrington said.

"We certainly wouldn't make money {using replacement players}, but we'd lose less than if we didn't play at all," said Harrington, adding the disclaimer that such early estimates are inexact.

The regular season is scheduled to open next Sunday night with the Florida Marlins hosting the New York Mets -- or the ReplaceMets, as they've been labeled recently -- in a game slated to be televised nationally by ESPN.

Management sources say that if an agreement can be reached between the owners and the Players Association even as late as Saturday, Opening Day would be postponed -- perhaps by as much as three weeks -- and the season would open late with major leaguers, not replacements, on the field. Union officials hope the NLRB provides them with a means for ending the strike even without a new labor agreement, by obtaining the injunction.

But an end to the strike under those circumstances could result in a lockout by the owners. (Labor law permits the use of replacement workers during a lockout under certain conditions, so there could be another legal fight over that.) Last week the NLRB postponed a decision about whether to pursue such an injunction, giving negotiators another chance.

If the season opens Sunday night, baseball fans who mostly have been ignoring the replacement teams in spring training will, if they wish, see a combination of has-been and never-were players, along with some marginal minor leaguers. (Most of the best minor league prospects have honored the strike, and teams don't want those players caught in the middle anyway.)

The owners believe some major leaguers, particularly young players with mounting financial difficulties, soon will break ranks and play alongside the replacements. Ownership representatives say there are rumblings of an imminent players' revolt. Philadelphia Phillies owner Bill Giles has said he'll try to lure some of his players back.

Union officials concede there may be some defections -- but in insignificant numbers, they say. Many players say the union's solidarity is as strong as ever. Baseball's labor war could get even uglier than it has been. If replacement player baseball becomes a regular season reality, the owners will have to battle advertisers and television executives who want no part of it, fans who don't seem to care about it and even one of their own -- Baltimore Orioles majority owner Peter Angelos, who refuses to field a replacement team.

The stars of the replacement league could be -- if they decide to go ahead and play -- former fringe major leaguers such as Henry Cotto, Jeff Stone and Sam Horn. Dennis (Oil Can) Boyd, with a career big league record of 78-77, could be the marquee pitcher. Home runs have been down about 40 percent and errors up approximately 20 percent from a year ago during spring training games, and some scouts say the level of play is roughly Class A caliber.

Chicago Cubs President Andy MacPhail last week put the level of play "between double-A and triple-A." Said MacPhail: "It's not major league baseball. No one is trying to say that. But the caliber of play is not as bad as some people would make you believe."

Some teams, like the Texas Rangers and Los Angeles Dodgers, took replacement baseball seriously from the start. Dodgers Manager Tommy Lasorda, unlike many of his peers, has worked with replacement players enthusiastically. By contrast, Sparky Anderson was placed on an unpaid leave of absence as manager of the Detroit Tigers at the beginning of spring training because of his refusal to work with replacements. And Davey Johnson, after last weekend calling replacement baseball "a travesty," had to be told by the Cincinnati Reds' front office to begin performing his managerial duties -- or else. Some clubs have offered financial inducements to their minor league players to serve as replacements.

Most baseball people are wary of making predictions about which replacement teams would be the best. Clubs will spend the final days before their regular season openers forming their 32-man replacement rosters, and finding out which of their minor league players will be willing to participate.

The Blue Jays, who have not been enthusiastic in their replacement efforts, will play their regular season "home" games at Dunedin (Fla.) Stadium because they are prohibited by Ontario law from using replacement workers in Toronto.

Dunedin Stadium has 6,218 seats and houses the Class A Dunedin Blue Jays. The grass field is of major league quality. But the lights are minor league caliber (Toronto's home games, at least at the beginning of the season, will be 1:05 p.m. contests). The visiting clubhouse regularly is used by Dunedin High School.

Neither the Blue Jays' TV nor radio rights holder in Toronto plans to carry replacement games. Harrington said that, as far as he knows, "all clubs are now negotiating with their rights holders for reduced rights fees" in case the season opens with replacements. The New York Yankees, however, have been sued by their radio rights holder, WABC, for allegedly refusing to reduce their rights fee.

The Madison Square Garden Network -- which is to pay the Yankees approximately $45 million for the club's TV rights this year -- angered team officials by canceling spring training telecasts, and an MSG spokesman said last week there's "virtually no interest from the advertising community" in replacement games. The Rangers have been told their over-the-air TV rights holder does not plan to carry replacement games, and the Houston Astros may be facing a similar predicament. The Montreal Expos say their two cable TV rights holders are undecided about carrying replacement games.

An ESPN spokesperson said last week the cable sports network currently has no plans to alter its 77-game schedule of baseball telecasts this season, but conceded that advertising "sales are not as strong as we'd like them to be." Mike Trager -- the executive vice president for sales and marketing of The Baseball Network, the second-year cooperative venture between ABC, NBC and Major League Baseball -- said TBN has not lost any advertisers. The networks have made no decisions about televising replacement games, Trager said, but they have time. The Baseball Network's first scheduled telecast this season is the All-Star Game on July 11 in Arlington, Tex.

The fans certainly don't seem enamored of replacements. According to Harrington, attendance has been down about 60 percent at spring training games. And that's just counting tickets sold; many games have taken place before crowds numbered in the hundreds. Union chief Donald Fehr and others on the players' side of the dispute predict the replacement games will fail dismally, but say the owners may have to see that before they believe it.

Opening Day should be fine for the owners from an attendance standpoint. The Reds, for example, have sold 46,000 tickets, and a Cincinnati business association plans to stage the city's traditional Opening Day parade. Game No. 2 should be a different story in most cities, though. "We're not trying to claim the baseball is the same, and we don't expect the attendance to be the same," Harrington said. "But we're going to give people the best baseball we can, and we think fans will show up."

Some of the biggest questions regarding replacement player baseball, of course, involve the Orioles and their iron-man shortstop, Cal Ripken. Selig has promised a formal vote among the owners about the use of replacements during the regular season this week, if such a vote is necessary. Once that vote is taken, American League President Gene Budig would have to make a ruling concerning the Orioles, and about Ripken's record-nearing consecutive games streak. Ripken, beginning on May 30, 1982, has played in 2,009 consecutive games -- just 121 contests shy of the record set by the Yankees' Lou Gehrig between June 1, 1925 and April 30, 1939.

The league maintains that it can, under terms of the AL constitution, fine the Orioles up to $250,000 per game, suspend Angelos or even seize the franchise if Angelos continues to refuse to use replacements during the regular season. But Angelos says the league constitution does not require him to field a team during a strike, and sources say he has a lawsuit ready to be filed if the league acts against him.

Baseball sources say the league is shying from a courtroom confrontation with Angelos, a labor attorney, and likely will announce this week that the Orioles simply will forfeit replacement games -- a measure that apparently would leave Ripken's streak intact. (The league also could make the Orioles' schedule "inactive," which would make forfeits unnecessary, and considered but apparently abandoned an idea to field a "commissioner's team" in the Orioles' place.) Union leaders and players say that as part of any settlement with the owners, they will seek to have the records of any regular season replacement games expunged. Management attorneys say the owners probably would not agree to that, since it would leave their side vulnerable to lawsuits by ticket buyers seeking refunds. Fehr doesn't buy that argument, saying recently: "I don't think anybody who would go to see those games would be deluded into thinking that's major league baseball."