Put a billion dollars on the table and it gets people's attention. Put it up for grabs and you never know what will happen.

Even another baseball strike.

Yes, it's that time again. Spring training starts next week. Opening Day is just 54 mornings away.

And the Basic Agreement's run out.

Just what we all wanted to hear.

Nothing makes our day like studying the negotiations between a union whose employes make an average of $330,000 a year and a group of owners whose clubs are worth $30 million to $60 million or more.

Nothing prompts our sympathy like wondering how these simple folk will divvy up that billion dollars, which arrived in the six-year network TV deals that Bowie Kuhn left as a legacy.

The good news in 1985 is that, on both sides of the table, baseball has its best available minds, and sanest temperaments, working on the problem.

Owner's man Lee MacPhail is mild and conciliatory compared to Ray Grebey, who was hired specifically as a tough guy in 1981. Union representative Don Fehr is as smart and tart as his mentor, Marvin Miller, but doesn't carry the deep personal hurts that the owners inflicted on Miller.

A wild-card player is the new commissioner, Peter Ueberroth, who says he'll keep his hands off. But last time push came to shove, he served as an arbitrator in the umpire's strike in October.

"I'm not going to tell you that everything is hunky-dory," said Fehr of the union, "but there is an absence of the kind of hostility that marked other negotiations. That makes it more likely we'll find our way our of this morass."

The bad news -- and unfortunately the only substantive news -- is that little if any progress has been made.

In fact, due to injudicious words and acts by two owners -- John McMullen of Houston and Peter O'Malley of Los Angeles -- everything's behind schedule. More on that later.

Both MacPhail and Fehr had hoped for a new agreement before spring training. Now, it seems unlikely a deal can be struck by Opening Day.

"I don't want to make artificial deadlines and threats," said Fehr. "Whether we get it done in March, April or May, I don't care just as long as it gets done. We always have time to fight if we have to fight."

June is probably the player's month of choice if they decide to strike, just as it was in the 60-day war of 1981.

Underneath their mandatory outward optimism, both MacPhail and Fehr are starting to worry. Two old familiar key issues and one nagging new problem are at the conflict's core.

Most important is that billion.

Since the 1960s, the players have gotten one-third of baseball's network TV money for their pension plan.

"Where that one-third figure came from no one knows," MacPhail said. "The two sides have argued about it for 15 years and finally agreed to disagree. The players say that one-third of any new TV revenue is automatically theirs.

"The owners' answer is 'That is ridiculous.' The owners feel that their only obligation is to produce a first-rate pension plan. They don't think this one-third exists."

"The owners claim it was just a series of 'coincidences' that in each new contract we always got one-third," Fehr said.

"We say one-third was what we negotiated for and they can't take it back now."

In its last TV contract, baseball hit a bonanza, quadrupling its income from the networks -- $1 billion for six years through 1989.

Players say, "We'll take our usual third of that: $55 million a year."

Owners say, "No you won't. You got $15 million a year under the last Basic Agreement and that's the starting point for any new talks."

"We want one-third. We expect it. And, in the end, I think we'll get it," Fehr said. "If they insist on backing off one-third, it's a guaranteed confrontation.

"The only way we'll come off one-third is to go up . . . way up . . . in our demands. Sure, this is the key issue. That's where the money is. It's like Willie Sutton and the bank. You find them together.

"I hope there aren't people (in ownership) expecting controntation (on this issue) because that tends to be a self-fulfilling prophecy," Fehr said. "But if they insist on it, we'll give it to them and win. But that's not our goal. We don't want war. We want solutions both sides can live with."

The issue that makes owners almost comparably upset is salary arbitration.

"The clubs feel whipsawed between free agency and arbitration," MacPhail said. "If a rich big-city team gives a player a million dollars a year, then a player from a poor small-town team can go to arbitration and get his case decided, in part, on the salary standards set by the big spenders.

"The owners know they can't eliminate or emasculate arbitration," said MacPhail, "but we want to see more than procedural changes."

"In salary arbitration, the two sides are going in opposite directions," Fehr said. "I hope they aren't serious about some of their ideas (in this area) because if they are, then down the road, that has a lot of problems attatched to it."

One reason so little progress has been made on these two big issues, let alone a dozen others, is that McMullen and O'Malley made serious missteps.

Both are members of a four-man committee of owners who are supposed to be the innermost circle of the club's negotiating team.

Yet both have embarrassed MacPhail and needlessly stirred up the union.

McMullen popped off about how much money baseball was losing. That necessitated an egg-in-the-face letter to Fehr reiterating that management was not claiming any financial hardships in its arguments.

O'Malley included drug-testing clauses in the contracts of some young Dodger players, which upset "an unbelievable number of players," Fehr said.

MacPhail has since had to reiterate that drug-testing is not an active issue in the contract talks.

"If that stuff with McMullen and O'Malley was just craziness, that would be one thing," Fehr said. "But it makes you wonder, 'Who is it Lee talks for?'

"If two owners on Lee's committee can't get their signals straight, that creates an enormous problem. If you're negotiating with someone who doesn't have authority, you can never turn your hole cards over.

"I know what (my membership) will really take in a crunch. Our (players') bargaining team has the flexibility to make decisions. Does Lee really know what his owners want and what they'll settle for? If you don't think that keeps me up at night worrying, you're wrong."