Marvin Miller, executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, who has removed himself from the players negotiating committee, said yesterday he would return to the bargaining table if the owners of the 26 clubs came too.
Responding to criticism by Yankee owner George Steinbrenner that Miller had committed a "harmful, even ridiculous act" by withdrawing from negotiations, Miller said, "Mr. Steinbrenner is saying I've got to get back there because I'm the captain of the ship. If Mr. Steinbrenner and others were to somehow manage to crawl on their knees with their own people and fight their way into the bargaining room so they can protect their own interests, I'll come back.
"They're trying to make the point that it's a copout, a dereliction of my responsibility. That's just fantastic. In the more than 15 years I've been here, not one owner, one general manager, one club official has managed to find their way into the negotiations."
Miller said removing himself from the negotiations was not a maneuver. "I haven't left to bring them (the owners) back. But if they are going to criticize it, the question is, "Where are you?'"
In order to achieve a settlement, Miller said, "We either have to negotiate with the principals or someone clearly speaking for them and their interests, and I don't detect the latter. In the final analysis, we can only express our opinion. We can't say, 'You ought to have someone else.' That's their right. They can bring the office boy in."
Neither Steinbrenner nor Ray Grebey, the chief negotiator for the owners' Player Relations Committee, could be reached for comment.
Miller said that in order to achieve a settlement, the owners, who are represented by Grebey and the Player Relations Committee, have to be more aware of what is going on.
"I'm not trying to get them (Grebey) out of there," Miller said. "I just want them (the owners) to observe what's going on. Thursday night, as we were packing our papers to go home, knowing there was a strike, you turn the television on and see George Steinbrenner live saying he knows 'there will be no strike.' He didn't know."
Miller added, "If Steinbrenner wants to protect his interests, he'd better do better than he is doing now. (American League President) Lee MacPhail and Grebey are not protecting his interests, that's obvious. They are both out to get him and others like him, the Krocs, the Autrys, the Turners."
The owners Miller referred to -- Ray Kroc of San Diego, Gene Autry of California and Ted Turner of Atlanta -- are known as big spenders in the free-agent market.
Free-agent compensation is the cause of the 3-day old strike. The owners have insisted that a club losing a quality free agent is entitled to compensation in the form of another major leaguer off the 25-man roster of the team signing the free agent (in exchange for a free agent ranked statistically in the top third of all players, a team would be able to select the 16th man off the other club's roster).
The players have rejected the owners' proposals for compensation directly lined to a team signing a free agent because, they say, it would discourage teams from signing free agents, thus limiting the players' mobility and bargaining power.
Miller said he removed himself from the negotiations because of reports from several players that owners considered him the obstacle to a settlement. "It's very insulting to the players," Miller said. "The implication is that they're dummies. So I finally said, 'Okay, let's put it to a test. If you think you can produce a deal with the players, do so.'"
Miller's remarks came on the first day of a cooling off period in the deadlocked negotiations. Federal mediator Kenneth E. Moffett, who will reconvene the parties early next week, said, "I'd say it's a cooling off period. It's as good a way of describing it as anything. The positions were pretty hard when we left Friday. I just hope things will loosen up a little after the weekend."
Meanwhile, Edward Bennett Williams, owner of the Orioles, told the Baltimore News-American that he thinks President Reagan could intervene in an effort to resolve the strike. Williams said: "Let me say that I don't think I have a right to personally ask the president for such action or try to intitiate the process myself. But it may be that the only way we are going to get this settled and get on with the season is to have the issue go to binding arbitration."
Sources close to the negotiations expressed the opinion that unless there was a quick settlement next week, the prospects for a prolonged strike would increase. "By the end of this week, people will be more set in their ways," one source said. "There will be a hardening rather than a softening, a feeling of, 'I can wait you out.'"
The owners have $50 million in insurance that takes effect after a deductible period of 152 games. The players association has no strike fund. Don Fehr, general counsel of the association, said its executive committee had considered the idea but rejected it as unworkable. "With a salary base of $4 million a week, it's pretty difficult to pay strike benefits." Fehr said. "If you want to pay at a rate of 12 1/2 percent, you'd have to pay $500,000 a week. That's an awful lot of money."
Questions have been raised, especially by those who underestimate the players' militancy on the issue, about how long they will stand united. "It's a concern prudent people always have," Fehr said. "Players don't like not to play, ever. That's why they'd rather be traded to a last-place team than sit on the bench for the Yankees. In that sense, yes, some individuals are going to say they'd like to play sooner than others. But I don't think that translates into saying, 'The hell with the union, I want to go back.'"