A day after an arbitrator charged major league baseball's 26 owners with trying to destroy free agency through collusion, players and union officials still weren't sure what they'd won and what the result might be. Oddly, no one on either side predicted that free agency, left for dead after the 1985 season, had been reborn.

"It's hard to say what'll happen," said New York Yankees reliever Dave Righetti, one of several prominent players eligible for free agency after this season. "I'm hopeful, but the owners are still going to act the way they want to act. Whether there's going to be a change is up to them. They still have the power."

However, Donald Fehr, executive director of the Major League Players Association, said Monday's ruling by arbitrator Tom Roberts that owners had sought to "destroy" free agency after the 1985 season had at least raised the stakes.

"If they continue to close the market, they'll do it at a much higher risk," he said. "Before, they could always say it was not intentional, there was no collusion, whatever. Now, if they do it, they're knowingly violating the terms of the collective bargaining agreement . . .

"We should know the answer in about six weeks when we have a new class of free agents. This year, there are some absolutely incredible players. If there are no offers, you'll know the clubs still don't want a competitive market. A Cal Ripken doesn't grow on trees."

Owners had argued there'd been no competitive bidding after the '85 season because the quality of the free-agent class was low. This winter, though, there are enough players to fill almost every team's shopping list, from star infielders (Ripken, Jack Clark, Tim Wallach, Mike Schmidt, Paul Molitor and Gary Gaetti); to power-hitting outfielders (Dale Murphy and Jesse Barfield); to pitching (Jack Morris, Righetti and Charlie Leibrandt).

The grievance was on behalf of 63 players, including Detroit outfielder Kirk Gibson, who found that the free-agent market had ended suddenly after 10 active years. Only two players, Dane Iorg and Juan Beniquez, changed teams that winter, and both of them had been unwanted by their previous teams.

Roberts will soon begin a separate hearing on what sort of damages to award, but said yesterday he may not announce penalties against the owners until shortly before the start of the 1988 season. Fehr is expected to ask that players such as Gibson be awarded damages and cash to bring their salaries into line with what other free agents had received.

Another grievance has been filed on behalf of last winter's free agents, and the union believes it has an even stronger case because players such as Tim Raines, Morris, Andre Dawson and Lance Parrish were available. Only Dawson and Parrish signed with other teams, but took pay cuts.

Meanwhile, the players eligible for free agency this winter were hopeful, but uncertain that Monday's ruling had changed anything.

"I still hope things can work out for me in Atlanta," Murphy said, "but free agency is obviously not something I've ruled out. This decision is good for the players. I've always maintained free agency is good for the players and the owners."

Morris reacted more bitterly. He was a free agent last winter and returned to the Detroit Tigers after failing to receive a single offer. He's again eligible for free agency because he took his case to arbitration (and won a $1.85 million salary).

"They were crooks two years ago," he said. "They were crooks last year. And they'll be crooks again if we let them. I don't think it's time to celebrate . . . Let's see if anything changes."

Barfield is wondering, too. He would like a multiyear contract with a raise.

"You hope now that something comes of it," he said. "I've always believed that what goes around comes around. The power may not always be in the same place."

Fehr admitted it is difficult to judge the long-term effects of the ruling. Although free agents from 1985 and 1986 might receive monetary compensation rewards, the long-term question appears unanswerable: Will owners still not bid for free agents?

Several owners have said they decided to leave the free-agent market on their own and had no plans to return. Meanwhile, Baltimore Orioles owner Edward Bennett Williams said: "I've been active in the free-agent market. This ruling won't change anything."

Fehr also admitted to having doubts about the long-term impact. "What we need to do is secure some kind of order or series of orders from this arbitrator and the next one that will make it very difficult for the owners to engage in this kind of behavior," he said.

But Barry Rona, the chief negotiator for the owners' Player Relations Committee, said that, damages aside, he was uncertain how that could be accomplished.

"The difficulty I have right now is what, if anything, I'm required to do," he said. "I can't tell clubs to participate in the free-agent market. That would be acting in concert. I can't tell them not to participate. The problem is that we agreed clubs must make individual decisions. From our perspective, that had occurred and should occur in the future."

He said teams backed out of free agency "because they changed their philosophy or because they'd had bad experiences in the past. There were a whole list of reasons."

Commissioner Peter Ueberroth, who has declined comment on the case, has said several times he made the owners aware of the negatives involved in signing free agents. He said he also gave them memos showing how players' production had historically declined and their days on the disabled list increased after signing long-term guaranteed contracts.

Regardless of whether there was collusion, teams did change their philosophies after the 1985 season, and the death of free agency was one byproduct. Other cost-cutting measures included no more long-term contracts.