Salary arbitration appears to have become the central dispute in the major league baseball contract negotiations after both sides today offered compromises on the pension contribution issue. But because both sides held firm in their arbitration demands, they appeared no closer to reaching a settlement before Tuesday's strike deadline.

The day began hopefully, with Commissioner Peter Ueberroth saying on ABC-TV that he didn't think there would be a strike. But it ended as the rest of the eight months of attempts to reach a new basic agreement have: in frustration.

Asked whether he would use fans' rights, which he has championed, to deprive a player of a right to strike, Ueberroth said, "The answer to the question is most likely yes. You don't like to hear that, but the fan cannot go unrepresented."

After today's session, neither side in the bargaining was willing to guess how Ueberroth might translate his statements into action. Major League rule 12A says the commissioner can make any decision he deems "in the best interest of baseball," a rule twice used by former commissioner Bowie Kuhn to nullify trades, but never used in strike situations.

Donald Fehr, acting executive director of the Major League Players Association, said he has instructed players not to travel after Monday night's games unless an agreement has been reached. No new talks are scheduled, but the sides expect to meet before the deadline.

In today's session, Fehr said he offered to accept less than the one-third of the national television package that in the past has gone to the players' pension fund. But he wanted a provision that part of the money not going to the fund would be used to help teams that the owners have said are in financial trouble. Under the proposed compromise, the union would agree to leave the salary arbitration system as it is now, instead of expanding it slightly as it originally desired.

"It is not a suggestion or proposal that came to us lightly, but this constitutes our best shot to try and make an agreement," Fehr said after the 2 1/2-hour meeting. "It addresses the clubs' stated concerns without compromising the rights of players and, at the same time, without doing something the players are unwilling to do, and that is to make concessions to clubs that are doing well and don't need it."

Fehr didn't say how much of a cut the union would take from the $60 million it has been asking for because, he said, the owners didn't ask. Lee MacPhail, chief negotiator for the owners as head of the Player Relations Committee, said there was no point in asking.

"Once they made it clear that the proposal was linked to no changes in the (salary arbitration) system, there was not much sense in asking what the number was," MacPhail said. " . . . As all you know, that is something we cannot accept."

MacPhail said he proposed a "formula" to link an increase in the pension fund contribution to the rise in revenues and salaries. For example, if revenues for all 26 major league teams increased by 10 percent and salaries increased by 5 percent, the increase in the pension contribution would be the difference, which in this case would be 5 percent. The $15.5 million per year the union currently receives would be the floor in this system for contributions. There also would be a ceiling in this system, but that figure was not discussed.

But the plan also contains provisions to change the time at which a player may be eligible for salary arbitration from two years to three years, and to place a 100 percent limit on the amount an arbitrator can increase the salary.

"We thought it was a good approach for a lot of reasons," MacPhail said. "Whatever happens with revenues and salaries would control what happens with the benefit contribution. It would also provide a formula to determine these things in the future so each time we have a Basic Agreement (to negotiate) we don't have a major confrontation."

"Packaged that way," Fehr said, asking the question himself, "is that anything that has any interest for us? No."

One point, at least, was settled: the issue of expansion.

"We had asked them to commit to expansion, and they (the owners) were unwilling to do that," Fehr said. "They asked for the right for six-team expansion without further bargaining, and we were unwilling to do that. We will stay with the current language in this agreement."

The current Basic Agreement permits expansion for up to two teams in the National League.