"I'm with the working class, whoever that is . . ." -- fan, Memorial Stadium

Karl Marx probably did not have Jim Palmer and Reggie Jackson in mind when he went to bat for the proletariat.

Nonetheless, there will be a called strike three in baseball unless a settlement between the Major League Players Association and the owners is reached by the May 23 deadline that has been imposed by the players.

Strike one? In 1980, clubhouse (and later Wall Street) lawyer John Montgomery Ward and the free agents of his day walked out on their own circuit for the entire season.

In 1972, the players association struck on April Fool's Day. But the strike was no joke: It lasted 13 days.

And now, once again, the workers are uniting.

On deck: Joe Hill.

"I'm kind of militant on this," said Ken Singleton the soft-spoken Oriole right fielder. "In '72, the older guys did it for us and now we've got to do it for the guys in the future. There's no sense backing down and giving back what we've already got.

"When did I start thinking about it? As soon as we signed the contract four years ago."

Negotiations have been plodding along since the 1976 basic agreement between the players association and the owners expired on Dec. 31. That agreement was reached only after the owners had locked the players out of spring training camp and Commissioner Bowie Kuhn stepped in.

The talk in Baltimore:

"It was my first big-league camp in 1976," said reliever Tim Stoddard, "and I went broke. I was all excited, and went down there to Florida and they said, 'Hey, you can't be here.'

"No one knew who I was. No one had bothered to tell me."

Today the players are better informed about the issues, more unified about them, more prepared for a strike. "If we took a vote right now," said player representative Mark Belanger, "twenty-six guys would say they don't want to strike. But 26 would say they will."

"I'll be at Bee's house," Stoddard said, nodding toward Al Bumbry. I'm going to wash his cars, 'cause he's going to pay me."

Bumbry says he's going fishing.

Dan Graham, who has been in the big leagues all of two weeks, says, "I'm going to freeload.

"I've got some money saved up, but I hate to get into my savings. I'm not going to look for a job. I'm gonna bum off some friends and hope it doesn't last very long. If it goes over two months, I'll be back West with my mom and dad."

Steve Stone, 32, is a little too old for that. "I think I'll try to resolve the situation in Afghanistan. Maybe after that, I'll see if I can help in the Middle East."

Right now that might be easier than resolving the dispute between the owners and the players. When the owners and the players counterproposal on Friday, Marvin Miller, executive director of the players assocication, pronounced himself "pessimistic."

Some players such as Stone and Terry Crowley still are optimistic that a settlement can be reached. "There's room for compromise on both sides," said Crowley. "Both parties have a responsibility to the fans to sit down and not leave the room until this thing is settled. People have put down their money on season tickets and planned their summer around the Orioles.

"I think of the Hoffbergers and the Williamses as friends. It bothers me that there are such differences of opinions among friends. I still think it can be worked out."

But more militant players such as player representative Mark Belanger and American League representative Doug DeCinces are glum and frustrated because they believe the owners want a strike.

"It's almost as if they want it to happen," said Rick Dempsey, who doesn't.

What has happened so far is this. When negotiations began in January, the owners presented a series of proposals, which represented fundamental changes in three areas: compensation for teams which lose free agents, a reduction of the percentage of television money committed to the pension plan, and a mandatory salary scale for all players with less than six years experience.

A proposal for a mandatory salary scale was the issue that sent the players out on strike in 1980. The thoroughly modern owners withdrew their proposal for a salary scale last month.

Progress has been made on the pension issue. And on still others, Miller has said, "we're close."

Compensation, everyone agrees, is the gut issue, the one giving Miller and Ray Grebey, the owners' chief negotiator, ulcers.

The only compensation now awarded to a free agent's ex-club is a choice in the amateur draft. Now the owners are insisting on something more: a roster player.

Compensation is necessary, say the owners, who have placed a gag order on themselves, to preserve competitive balance; to keep the big spenders from gobbling up all the available superstars who are liable to have candy bars named after them.

After all, they say, other sports have compensation, why shouldn't baseball?

For the players, this is anathema. For them, the freedom they gained in the 1976 collective bargaining agreement is not just another word for nothing left to lose. It is a non-negotiable issue, they say.

The owners' proposal, they insist, is designed to ensure that free agents lose their ability to market themselves freely, to cut down on salaries. The owners, they say are asking for an unprecedented give-back. What's more, the players say, the owners are asking their players to do what they cannot stop themselves from doing: spending millions of dollars on mediocre ballplayers.

"No one's put a gun to their heads," the players say. "They say they are not aiming at anyone's salary," Miller said, "But ever time a player goes in to talk to the owner, it's God, we've got to do something or we'll go broke."

"Owners admit it to me privately. They say, 'We can't control it.' One general manager told me this week, if the 26 cents clubs were run in a business-like fashion, we wouldn't need a proposal like this. But we can't."

The owners' proposal is this: If a premium free agent (one selected by seven or more teams, and among the leaders at his position) is signed, the club signing him may protect 15 players. The club losing him can select anyone else from the roster as compensation.

For a free agent selected by seven or more teams but not necessarily among the leaders, the club would be able to protect 18 players. The owners say that under this proposal 20 percent of the players in last year's free-agent draft would have been premium players.

The players association rejected the proposal last week and offered to drop its suggestion: for liberaliziang the 1976 plan, and maintain the status quo for two years instead. The owners rejected that idea on Friday.

One possible compromise, that some owners are known to favor, is a compensation plan that would allow each team to freeze 25-30 players, its entire major league roster if it so chooses. The club losing the free agent could then select an unprotected player from the minor league system, under the condition that the prospect be placed on the active major league roster.

The system, it is suggested, would not interfere with the free agent's ability to market himself while giving the team a chance to recover something.

Miller begged to differ. "It's merely a shift of number," he said. "We've tried to get them to define what they mean by a premium free agent since November and they would never define it. In January, they said we mean a Rod Carew or a Vida Blue. But every proposal goes so much further than that to make it garbage. "A .222 hitter is a premium player according to them. In terms of his value to his team he's way down. If the only way he can be signed is if they give up a top prospect, he'll never get a job.

"There's been a subterfuge all along. Everyone thinks they are trying to clobber the top guys. But they've got their eyes in the wrong direction. Most owners don't worry about Nolan Ryan or Rod Carew. By and large the guy they want to clobber is the guy who hits .250 and makes $150,000.'

The owners insist there is no need for a strike, that the season can continue along with negotiations. The football and basketball players have played without a contract, they point out. Grebey said last week, "As far as we're concerned there is no deadline."

But the executive committee of the players' association, which set the strike deadline in a unanimous vote on April 1, did so, in part, because they believed the owners were stalling in negotiations and would continue to do so without the threat of a strike. Miller says he is stil not convinced that the owners believe the players are ready to strike.

Two weeks ago, when Belanger returned from the talks in New York, all he could report was that the owners had agreed to "put a whirlpool in every clubhouse."

Belanger says he does not intend to work out during the strike because he sees no reason to get himself ready to play until the owners show they are ready to negotiate.

"We're not stupid," said DeCinces. "It's obvious Mr. Grebey has been looking for a showdown by waiting till the last minute. It's been a real bush-league move. On April 1st, we had no contract (to vote on) and as I speak to you today, we have no contract.

"The owners, by waiting, will have the fans thinking we're just walking out because we want more money. It's not a money thing. It's a basic right under the antitrust laws of the United States of America."

There is also concern, on the part of the players association, that if negotiations continued through the summer, the owners could declare an ipasse, and institute new work rules -- compensation -- based on their last offer.

The union could then file an unfair labor practice, charge with the Natinal Labor Relations Board, which would then rule on whether an impasse had existed.

On Monday, Grebey's office circulated a memo calling this a "strawman issue to help justify (strike) action."

Richard Moss, special counsel to the players association, called the memo "fraudulent," and an "attempt to pursuade the players that there is no need for a strike."

Some owners feel that a strike could be averted if the owners would simply promise not to decalre an impasse.

"For how long?" said Miller. "We can't strike in November." By then, the players' leverage would be lost.

Some players cannot fathom why the owners would want to risk a strike at a time when the national pastime has become a national preoccupation.

"I think it's a crime how the owners have been profiting so much and then they still allow this to happen," said DeCines. "Every statistic shows them making so much money but they are risking it all."

In 1976, when the free agent system went into effect, attendance was 31,318,355. Last year, it hit 43,550,398.

According to the commissioner's office, ticket prices have not soared along with free agent salaries. The average ticket cost only 77 cents more last year than it did in 1976.

Should a strike last the entire season, a club like the Orioles could lose $3 million, by some estimates. Moss thinks the losses for some teams could be much higer. "Take the Dodgers, for example," he said. "They grossed $20 million before taxes and after expenses last year."

Hank Peters, the general manager of the Orioles, said that the club's financial experts were working on estimates of projected losses but would not discuss them. He also said that contingency plans concerning the future of front office personnel had not been finalized.

However, some teams have already decided that they would have to furlough administrative employes in the event of a strike.

The players will lose, too. Stone says he expects to lose $1,000 a day.

But in Baltimore, the fans are not singing "Solidarity Forever." In fact, Belanger says his mail has been running two to one against the players. "I even got a letter from the White House," he said.

Asked to divulge the contents, he smiled and said, "No comment."

Most fans are not sparing with their comments, which by and large, are not favorable.

I've been a policeman for 25 years," said James Simms of Baltimore. "The average worker doesn't make what they make. The baseball players want everything. The average working man can't even afford these games if he has a family of four.

"I do not sympathize with the athletes because they're in a high braket. They don't belong with the working man. They don't work. Anyone can play baseball."

There's the rub.

The average worker cannot accept the notion of baseball as hard labor.

"Everybody's thrown the baseball around, had a catch," said DeCines. "They've all had the dream of being a major leaguer. They think we should be extremely grateful for being here. And we are. More than the fans can know. They don't know what we know about what it took to get here."

"I have no idea what the guy on the production line does," said Belanger. "They think we just sit around in the sunshine and have a great vacation in Florida. . ."

The image of the money-grubbing baseball player who get paid for shagging flies in the sunshine while prolonging his boyhood, Belanger says, is, in part, the result of misconceptions about the length of career and salary.

The average major-league career lasts 4.25 years. As Rick Firestone, a sympathetic fan, put it, "I can spend 30 or 40 years at what I'm doing. How long can they? And then what? You can only open up so many bowling alleys." l

According to Grebey, the average annual salary in baseball is $149,000. The players association says that figure in not accurate because it includes deferred payments, signing bonuses and incentive bonuses.

According to the players association, it was only $113,000.

"I bet you can't find me two articles within the last year that said Johnny Jones signed for $21,000," Belanger said. "But they don't miss a one with $180,000."

Stone said, "The public has a very hard time getting their minds past the money. As soon as someone says, "I won't make $700,000 in my lifetime. what do these guys want?"

"The enormous salaries are not what the issue is. We're not striking for higher salaries."

If the fans have a difficult time identifying with the players as cardcarrying members of a union, they have an equally difficult time viewing them as entertainers in a league with Sammy Davis Jr.

"I don't think Johnny Carson got a lot of hate mail when he signed for $5 million," Stone said. "But Sutter probably did. Why? Well, Johnny's a lot funnier than Bruce. I mean Bruce is a wonderful guy, but his "carnac is weak."

Miller says that fans write to him all the time to complain about the salaries, and that when they do they never fail to mention their own. "i tell them, 'If two million people paid to watch you work and you got the salary you get, you'd have a grevience too."

The irony of the situation is, Miller says, that "many people who are exploited in their own jobs are siding with the millionare owners."

The negotiators are at the table, their positions seemingly entrenched. On Friday, the familier "Play Ball," may give way to a more strident call: "On Strike, Shut It Down."

But don't expect to cross a picket line. There are no scabs in baseball. "The King and his Court only play softball," Stone said.

There is no replacement for the summer game.