On Thursday, baseball owners opened their books for the first time.

Yesterday, the union reacted by throwing the book at the owners.

"Essentially meaningless" and "an example of voodoo economics," said union leader Don Fehr concerning management's claim that the owners lost $42 million in 1984 and might lose as much as $155 million a year by 1988.

"I'm significantly more pessimistic about the chances of avoiding a strike than I was a couple of months ago," said Fehr, who will ask his membership for a strike authorization vote next week. "They're trying to scare everybody. This is the best way I know to have (management) never be believed again. That makes it tremendously more difficult to reach a solution.

"Either they will negotiate fairly or there will be a strike. As of now, there's no evidence of any sort that they are interested in resolving this problem. In fact, all the evidence says they don't.

"What we're seeing is essentially a public relations offensive. They're crying poverty to beat the band," said Fehr, rattling his saber loudly for the first time since becoming the players' chief negotiator in November 1983. "There are 16 different ways to do voodoo economics. At this point, our (preliminary evaluation) is that their figures are essentially meaningless.

"So far, we are underwhelmed," continued Fehr, who says the union has not had time to comb the material it has been given. "If teams are losing money and it's not just a trick of accounting, there would be no buyers or only buyers willing to assume debts. But that's not the case. Teams are being sold for record amounts."

Lee MacPhail, management's chief negotiator, said in response, "The union has always said, 'If there is really a serious financial problem in the game, then show us the books and maybe we can try to help.' That is what we are finally doing.

"What we sent to the union is a report from one of the Big Eight accounting firms (Ernst & Whinney). All the figures have been audited by other Big Eight firms. They don't put out 'voodoo economics.' Certainly the information we gave them is not meaningless. These are the facts of which we have become increasingly and painfully aware.

"We've given them almost everything they've asked for. They may say they are 'underwhelmed,' but I'm sure they are overwhelmed by the amount of material we have sent them. They really didn't anticipate that we would come through like this."

Baseball's labor rhubarb, which has confined itself to bench-jockeying in recent months, now has erupted into an open verbal brawl.

"There are all kinds of ways to show losses," said Fehr. "A team (recently) bought for $50 million can show $9 million in losses each year by depreciating its players . . . If just a few clubs are taking that depreciation, it turns the numbers from red to black."

Fehr pointed out that some owners who control both a baseball team and a cable television network might keep most of their money in the TV operation and not the club. "We're being shown the empty pocket," he said, adding, "It's not just teams like the Braves, Cubs, Rangers and Mets with cable TV connections, or (newly bought) teams using their tax depreciations. How can you measure the worth in advertising to a beer company like Anheuser-Busch or Labatt's when it owns a team like the Cardinals or Blue Jays? The finances of the ball club are small compared to the larger concerns of the parent company . . .

"If there are club ownerships which, in their total economic picture, don't mind losing some money -- if that's how they feel -- then why should I care? If they don't worry, why should I?"

MacPhail, like many in ownership, is fearful of a sport full of teams that are, in a sense, pawns in some larger economic game. Teams such as Ted Turner's Atlanta Braves and a half-dozen others tend to pay huge contracts, incur large long-term debts and, through the dynamic of arbitration, drive up everybody else's salary structure as well.

"Baseball should be able to stand on its own two feet," MacPhail said. "It is not good for the game to have teams owned by people who aren't really interested in them as baseball teams but as something else.

"In free enterprise, you rely on the law of supply and demand to regulate the marketplace, but here that law isn't really working. There are other motives at work beside the motive of profit. Teams have a desire to win. And they feel the pressure by fans and media to win. If clubs do not sign players to contracts which are uneconomic (ie., economically unwise), then they stand to lose money at the gate. They have little choice but to spend what it takes to build a winner and hope for the best.

"So, almost everybody is spending, but everybody can't win," he said. "There are 10 teams that have lost over $12 million each in the last three years. You aren't going to keep good owners with that sort of situation and you aren't going to attract good new owners.

"I'm talking in scary fashion because I'm concerned."

If the owners are talking scared, then the players are talking angry.

"We have retained a neutral economic analyst, Prof. Roger Noll of Stanford," said Fehr. "He's been a fellow at the Brookings Institute, been retained by the IRS and testified before congressional subcommittees. His conclusion is that their forecasts about future debt are, basically, meaningless . . . "

Noll was not available to comment.

"When we ask the owners, 'When is this crisis? Next year? In 2010?' They say they don't know," Fehr said. " 'Which clubs have a problem in meeting deferred payments?' They say, 'None.'

"Sometimes I'm afraid they really don't know what they're doing.

"We can't even get them to answer a simple question like, 'How much money do you want to save?' "

Perhaps the only issue on which Fehr and MacPhail agree is that Commissioner Peter Ueberroth's request that players join his mandatory drug-testing program should not be linked to the labor talks. "That would make things 100 times more complicated," Fehr said. "Let's keep those issues (labor and drugs) on separate tracks," MacPhail said.

In a conciliatory gesture, MacPhail said, "I didn't expect the union to get our data and say the next day, 'Gee, you're really in bad shape. Let's sit down and talk.'

"The union has shown in the past that it can act in a statesmanlike way. Despite what they say as a first reaction, we think that they will end up giving proper consideration to a very serious problem . . . A strike would be disastrous for the game, but so would the sort of financial losses that we see predicted in the very near future."

"We're not trying to roll back (union gains). We just want to level off this astronomical rate of salary increase. When you have contracts of $2 million a year and arbitration awards of $1 million a year and lifetime contracts (for $40 million), it's clear that the system isn't working."