Baseball, at last, is back, albeit with an uneasy labor peace.

The longest and most destructive work stoppage in professional sports history ended today when major league baseball's 28 team owners accepted the players' offer to end their nearly eight-month strike.

The players will report to spring training camps in Florida and Arizona this week -- the mandatory reporting day is Friday -- and the regular season, with 144 games per team rather than the usual 162, will begin April 26.

Donald Fehr, chief of the Major League Baseball Players Association, said tonight from his home in Rye Brook, N.Y.: "It's good news. We should get things started as quickly as possible. But more importantly, we should continue to negotiate. I think we're making progress."

The owners, who met for about five hours today at an O'Hare Airport hotel, had little choice but to accept the players' unconditional return-to-work offer. It had become clear even before the union offered on Friday to end its strike -- after a federal judge in New York granted an injunction restoring terms of the sport's expired collective bargaining agreement -- that there would not be the necessary 21 votes among 28 owners to lock out the players.

Owners said they did not take an official lockout vote today, but unanimously decided against such a measure.

"The players are back," acting commissioner Bud Selig, the owner of the Milwaukee Brewers, said during a news conference here tonight. "The game is back, and we are very happy about that. . . . The mood in the meeting today was to do what's in the best interests of the game."

Players will begin reporting to spring training camps Wednesday. On Tuesday arguments are scheduled to be heard in a U.S. circuit court of appeals in New York on the owners' request for a stay of the injunction, which was requested by the National Labor Relations Board. Selig refused to say what would happen if the stay is granted, but said it wouldn't affect the owners' acceptance of the players' return-to-work offer. Other management officials conceded there's virtually no chance that the owners will get the stay.

Selig said it will be up to the owners' bargaining committee to speak to the union about a no-strike pledge for the 1995 season. The union may be reluctant to agree to that since the owners retain the right to declare an impasse in negotiations and unilaterally impose terms of employment. Baltimore Orioles majority owner Peter Angelos repeated that he believes there's sentiment on both sides for the union issuing a no-strike pledge for the '95 season, and the owners agreeing in return not to implement working conditions through Dec. 31.

"I think a majority of the owners are interested in ending this labor-management dispute once and for all, and having a collective bargaining agreement that is fair and equitable for both sides," Angelos said just before the meeting. "No one wants a repeat of 1994. . . . We want to put that period behind us, turn the page and begin again. Both sides."

Selig said, "It's important that we have a season without interruption." But he added an ominous note, saying: "This dispute never comes to an end until we have a deal at the {bargaining} table."

The strike ends without a new labor agreement and, 234 days after the players' walked out last Aug. 12, baseball is set to begin again. The owners and players are relatively close on the issues. The major -- and perhaps the only -- issue separating them is formulating a system for taxing teams' player payrolls. That is a formidable obstacle, and it could be quite some time before a compromise.

The owners suffered a stinging legal defeat when U.S. District Court Judge Sonia Sotomayor sided with the NLRB and the union Friday, issuing an injunction that restored the salary arbitration system, anti-collusion protections for free agent players and competitive bidding for free agents. The owners had unilaterally eliminated those provisions of baseball's most recent labor agreement in early February, but the NLRB called that an unfair labor practice. Sotomayor agreed, ruling that restoring the "status quo" was necessary to put the sides on equal footing at the bargaining table.

The owners began these negotiations seeking a system by which players would be limited to receiving 50 percent of designated industry revenues as compensation -- a hard salary cap. They ended up seeking a tax system as the cost-control mechanism they say they need for curbing players' rising salaries. At least for now, the owners got nothing. Baseball's former economic system, the one by which the average salary for a player had grown to nearly $1.2 million a year, is back in place -- without a salary cap or a tax system, and with salary arbitration and players eligible for unrestricted free agency after six seasons of major league service.

The sport has been ravaged. The strike caused cancellation of the final 52 days of the 1994 regular season and the expanded postseason -- including the World Series, which was called off for the first time in 90 years. Teams spent the winter scrambling, mostly unsuccessfully, to sell tickets and advertising as they prepared to open this season with replacement players. Baseball will lose 3 1/2 weeks of the '95 season, which had been scheduled to open tonight with the New York Mets-Florida Marlins game in Miami.

Both sides have suffered enormous financial losses. The players last year lost about $230 million in income. The owners, according to the brief they submitted to the district court last week, lost approximately $700 million. Those tabs will increase in the next few weeks. But it could have been worse. According to Boston Red Sox general partner John Harrington, the owners would have suffered operating losses of $400 million to $600 million had they played the entire 1995 season with replacement players, and $600 million to $800 million had they shut down the industry for the year.

The ruling Executive Council, headed by Selig, apparently decided during a conference call Friday, just hours after Sotomayor's ruling, that the owners did not have the support for a lockout. Had they opted for the lockout and then had it ruled illegal in court, the owners could have been forced to pay the players damages for back pay -- about $5 million per regular season day -- plus interest. On Saturday, the major league teams were informed in a memo from management lawyers they could resume negotiating with and signing players, and Saturday evening the clubs were told to release their strike-breaking players by midnight to avoid the $5,000 Opening Day bonus and $20,000 in termination pay per player called for in replacement contracts.

There are logistical nightmares to starting the season. Fewer than one-third of the approximately 1,100 players who were on strike have signed contracts for this season. Free agent players likely will begin spring training at a union-sponsored camp in Homestead, Fla. The major league umpires have been locked out since Jan. 1. Teams will be allowed 28 players instead of the normal 25 for an indefinite period.

Gene Orza, the union's second-ranking official, said today from New York that he probably will spend Monday at the Immigration and Naturalization Service in Washington, attempting to speed the process by which foreign players are granted visas to enter the country.

Still, Angelos expressed the view of most of the sport's fans when he said: "I'm just glad that baseball will begin again."

Of course, baseball almost never is in an all-is-well mode these days. As today's meeting of the owners began, police officers rushed to the hotel to have the many television satellite trucks parked outside dispersed. The transmissions were interfering with air traffic control at O'Hare, and for a while planes were not permitted to land. CAPTION: Acting commissioner Bud Selig announces that the owners have accepted players' offer to return to work. CAPTION: Donald Fehr.