The battle lines and basic strategies in baseball's latest labor crisis finally have taken clear shape.

This time, it's the owners, not the players, who have taken the tactical initiative.

After four years of being caught over their own barrel of money, the bosses have concocted a cynical, Machiavellian, but thoroughly businesslike master plan.

It's simply in concept: divide and conquer the players by undermining their union solidarity.

It's complex in detail: working for leverage in several areas simultaneously, and disguising its true objectives.

And, above all, the plan looks like a beauty. The players, in the driver's seat for a few seasons, are going to like it less and less as they gradually dope it out.

On the surface, the owners' two fundamental proposals seem modest.

Management has suggested a scale of minimum and maximum salaries for players with fewer than six years service.

Broadly stated, a future young star of Dave Parker's caliber could earn, say, $190,000 a year, but he couldn't prey on the current open-market hysteria to make $900,000 per season.

Also, the owners are asking for a new system of partial compensation whereby a team that lost a star free agent would get a decent, although not comparable, major-league-quality player to salve its wounds.

Again, broadly stated, if Houston signed a million-a-year star like Nolan Ryan, California would be offered its pick of one of several competent but not great players on the Astros' 40-man roster. The Angels might lose Ryan, but at least they'd get someone like Rafael Landestoy to "partially" soften the blow.

Instead of sounding tough, the owners have come on softly, emphasizing that spring training, as far as they are concerned, will go on as usual, and that the season itself could start without a new basic agreement.

Beneath this bland exterior ticks a coordinated and well-plotted stratagem that, the owners hope, will bring them back to parity in their labor arm-wrestling.

The owners hope to whipsaw the players association with the same psychological ploy that the players have used successfully for the past several years: the safe assumption that greed and blatant self-interest rule the marketplace.

"We've been bidding against each other for free agents, driving the salary structure up, even though it wasn't in our own long-term interests," said an AL general manager.

"Everybody, including owners, tends to look out for No. 1 first, then worry about the whole group later," he said. "Perhaps, we're learning to apply that lesson in reverse."

If baseball management needed any further impetus to close ranks, it came in November when the bidding for free agents reached new heights of the ridiculous. "When Al Hrabosky signs for $5.6 million," said another GM, "it's time to ask serious questions."

Owners have made three smart negotiating decisions.

First, they have realized that fighting the concept of free agency is impossible legally as well as bad public relations.

"We admit free agency has had its positive effects, especially in publicity," said Ray Grebey, the owners' chief negotiator. "We aren't looking to abolish it."

Second, the owners have found some sensible and feasible ways to discuss obtaining partial compensation for lost free agents.

"What we want is compensation in the form of a (major league) player with a better chance of succeeding in a shorter period of time than an unproven amateur," said Grebey.

The owners' first compensation proposal seems so rational, in its sneaky way, that some form of it may actually come to pass.

This is the basic idea.

Every team could protect its 15 best players. They would be untouchable as compensation.

Next, a standard would be set to establish a definition for what would constitute a "very top free agent." The owners' first suggestion is that it would be any player selected by seven or more clubs in the reentry draft.

Finally, when a "very top" free agent is signed, the team that gets him would have to give up an unprotected player (either a major or minor leaguer) as compensation.

It seems as fair, such a decent compromise.

Of course, there is a hidden catch -- a big one that doubtless would save management millions of dollars. For instance, Nolan Ryan's value on the open market would go down (although one can only guess how much) if the teams bidding for him know that they are going to lose the 16th-best player in their organization as compensation.

Suddenly, free agents change from being a can't-lose bonanza to being a bit of a gamble. Might not this innocent "partial compensation" cut the market value of "very top" free agents by a third or even a half? No one knows, but the owners would he delighted to find out.

This new compensation rule, which looks so harmless, is the prize at the center of management's Chinese box. It's what they probably would "settle for" when all the other smoke-screen packages have been traded off.

The players aren't going to like the owners' low-key, sensible-looking compensation rule. They'll spot that hidden hook soon enough. But they may have to swallow it.


Because the third prong of the owners' new proposal -- salary scales -- is an issue so tough for the player's union to handle that it may give the owners the leverage they need to muscle in a compensation rule as part of a tit-for-tat trade.

"Our desire," said the owners' spokesman, Grebey, "is to put in effect a system that would establish a broad for predicting our costs, help to bring more equity in salaries, and have salaries based on a performance rate.

"We've done a lot of computer analysis relating player salaries to performance. We've suggested a salary scale for players with less than six years of major league service, based on both performance and experience."

According to sources, base salaries at the top end of the management-proposed range from $40,600 for a rookie to $153,600 for a six-year man. Additional "incentive bonuses" that the owners have suggested mightd range from $200 to $34,300. The most any non-free agent could make would be $187,900.

In simpler terms, the owners have realized that since laissez-faire capitalism is killing them in the wallet, maybe they had better opt for a sort of gaudy baseball socialism.

This "new system" would, of course, significantly reduce the total salaries of the 75 percent of players on current 40-man rosters who have fewer than six years service.

"Their concept would, in time, slash pay by around 32 percent," Marvin Miller, director of the players' association, said angrily.

How then can the owners possibly hope that such a proposal, if pushed hard, would not precipitate a strike?

Easy. This is where the greed comes in.

The owners promise that no one currently active will have to take a pay cut. The cream of baseball like Dave Parker. Dave Winfield, Fred Lynn and Jim Rice -- all less than six-year vets -- can keep their $500,000 to $900,000 salaries.

It's the next wave of young stars that would hit their heads on a $153,600 ceiling.

Just as management has taken to cannibalizing itself in free-agent bidding wars, now labor has the opportunity for everybody to "look out for No. 1."

"The owners have said that even if there is no (basic) agreement, the season could go on as usual," Miller said this week."To that I say, 'Don't bet on the players playing without a contract.'"

On the other hand, don't bet that they won't.

"It's going to be harder than ever for players to stay away (on strike)," said Carl Yastrzemski. "Salaries have reached the point where top players would be losing thousands of dollars in salary for every game they missed."

Will Dave Parker win the George Meany Award by giving up $5,000 per game so that the next Dave Parker will not have to play for a pathetic $150,000 a year?

"We expect the players to take a hard look at where their interests lie," said an AL general manager.

"It's evident that a player's career is relatively short. Maybe he will stand by an abstract idea and go on strike. And maybe he won't. Maybe he will say, 'That guy five years down the road isn't me.'

"This approach isn't villainy," said the veteran GM. "It's just business."

Management has carefully built a negotiating atmosphere in which almost every factor is designed to weaken the resolve of the players union.

"They've already used delaying tactics, trying to create a to-the-brink atmosphere," protested Miller.

As opening day, April 9, draws near, each player will see more clearly that the owners' new proposals do not take a penny out of any currently signed player's pocket. Salary scales would effect only the next contract he signs.

In fact, many young players would get raises under the scale-salary system.

It is those future players who, in their early years, would be held back by salary ceilings, who would not be offered colossal long-term contracts at a tender age, and who, when they became free agents, would hawk themselves in a not-so-open market.

Everything is designed to look good for the players today, but better for the owners tomorrow.

Above all, two factors are going to put the strong arm on the players' association's bargaining position.

First, the players have very few demands that they can make with a straignt face, because their current setup is almost ideal.

The second problem for the players association is the knowledge that if the new season starts without a contract, it will be a serious blow to the union's prestige.

For the last four years, baseball's owners have forgotten to factor their own competitive ambition and greed into their labor policy. They have paid for it into the tens of millions.

Now, it is the players who have been maneuvered into a position where they myst show restraint and far-sightedness, turning down cash and comfort for the sake of the future.

Is it likely that they will fare better than the owners?

"The players can see what the owners are up to," said Mark Belanger, one of the eight players on the association's negotiating subcommittee.

"Once again, the owners have refused the opportunity to open their books and prove that the red ink they talk about is true. They've stalled the bargaining process with their usual delay tactics.

"We understand that the salary-scale proposal would cut pay by $25,000 per man in the long run," said Belanger. "But we also know that it's going to be hard to convince the players that the owners' plans are aimed five years down the road.

"We can also see that partial compensstion is probably the thing they really want. It would do an excellent job of driving down the whole salary structure of the game within a few years. And we can see that the salary scale is probably the lever they're using to get us to go along with compensation.

"At the 11th hour, they'll say, 'Okay Okay, we'll give up the salary scale in exchange for partial conpensation.'

"But, we see no reason to give them either. I don't know of any industry where you go backwards, and that's what they're asking.

"The bottom line is that the owners want to create a new system -- with salary scales and conpensation -- where we, the players, will protect them from themselves.

"And we aren't about to do it."

Perhaps the only near-certainty at this point is that negotiations will be pushed to a crisis point just before opening day. The owners want to put that tight shoe on the other foot.

Baseball's good-luck trump is that the game is at one of its healthiest and most popular apexes in history. It is doubtful that either side is dumb enough, or up-against-the-wall enough, to want a costly strike.

These difficult negotiations, especially if the concept of partial compensation is the final meeting ground, may put a cap on gushing free-agent salaries and bring the relative power ofowners and players into some semblance of balance for the first time in baseball history.