Even with the uproar this week over arbitrator George Nicolau's decision in the Collusion III case, it appears relations between baseball owners and the Major League Baseball Players Association are relatively smooth these days.

Donald Fehr, the MLBPA's executive director, said Friday there have been "preliminary discussions" about the formation of the joint committee that is supposed to study the game's economic condition before the next round of collective bargaining negotiations begin.

He expressed optimism that the sides "will make the September 1 target date" for the formation of the committee, whose work probably will decide the legitimacy of the owners' position that they cannot cope with a salary structure sent skyrocketing by free agency and arbitration.

In related developments, Fehr said he expects a decision on the secondary damage phase of Collusion I "before too much time." The players already have won $10.5 million, and may receive several hundred thousand dollars more. He also said he thinks a ruling on damages in the Collusion II case will be made before the season ends.

In addition, there could be a Collusion IV, regarding the 1988 free-agent market. Fehr said the union believes a "technical violation" occurred that year, but the cumulative effect of the collusion that took place the previous three years may have been more important and complicates the matter.

"I hope we won't have to try that one," he said.

Him, Change?

David Greenfield, the lawyer for Howard Spira, on George Steinbrenner's credibility with regard to his dealings with Spira and Dave Winfield: "This man changes his story more often than he changes managers."

Cincinnati Reds Manager Lou Piniella, a former Yankees player, coach and manager, said after it was revealed Steinbrenner had told Commissioner Fay Vincent that Spira had threatened to disclose information regarding Piniella's "betting on sports": "I guess when you get into bed with a skunk, you never lose the scent." . . .

Here's an irony Pete Rose surely can appreciate. He is scheduled to report to prison Aug. 10, precisely nine years after the day he surpassed Stan Musial as the NL's all-time hit leader. . . . Twins third baseman Gary Gaetti has started five of the club's last six triple plays and has been involved in six of the last seven. The Twins have had 10 in their history. . . . Since Lee Thomas became general manager of the Phillies in 1988, they have not had a winning streak longer than four games. . . . When the Padres defeated the Pirates, 4-1, last Sunday, it was their largest margin of victory since June 26 and second largest since June 8. It remained that way going into this weekend. . . . Carlton Fisk stole two bases Tuesday. He has seven stolen bases this season, four shy of Honus Wagner's record by a 42-year-old. Fisk also needs just six homers to surpass Johnny Bench's all-time record for catchers. . . . Tigers pitchers Dan Petry, Jeff Robinson and Frank Tanana have totaled six victories in their last 32 starts. . . . Giants pitcher Mike LaCoss's height is listed as 6 feet 4 in the Baseball Register, 6-5 in the Baseball Encyclopedia and 6-6 in the Giants media guide.

Negative New York Note of the Week (Mets File): Although you'd never know it, they went into the weekend still trailing the Pirates. All of the attention the Mets have received prompted Pittsburgh Manager Jim Leyland to say (and these may be famous last words): "All you hear is the Mets, the Mets, the Mets. . . . I'm getting tired of hearing it. . . . They're chasing us. We're not chasing them."