NEW YORK, SEPT. 17 -- Major league baseball owners were ordered today to pay players at least $102.5 million in lost salary because they conspired to hold down salaries of free agents in the 1987 and 1988 seasons. The decision by arbitrator George Nicolau marks the fifth consecutive decision to go against the owners on collusion. Arbitrators also have ruled that the owners were guilty of suppressing salaries through a free-agent boycott after the 1985, 1986 and 1987 seasons.

Last year the players were awarded $10.5 million by arbitrator Thomas Roberts, who heard the 1986 collusion case.

Hearings will be held next week in Chicago to determine how the money is to be divided. Donald Fehr, executive director of the Major League Players Association, said tonight the hearings also will deal with additional damages, such as compensation for loss of mobility. He said the damages also would include lost salary for 1989 and 1990, plus interest.

Hundreds of players might be involved in the final payout because the rulings may cover those players who went through arbitration during those years as well as the free agents, Fehr said.

"Protest as they will, the owners can no longer downplay either the significance or the effect of their intentionally wrongful conduct," he said.

Although teams again started signing free agents -- some to huge contracts -- following the 1988 season, the union claims damages are continuing because salaries are lower than they would have been without the collusion.

In 1987 the clubs used an "information bank," a central clearinghouse for information on negotiations with free agents. Nicolau found the bank violated the basic bargaining agreement.

Clubs already have placed $10.5 million in escrow to cover the Roberts decision. Chuck O'Connor, head of management's Player Relations Committee, said $102.5 million would be added to the account by the end of the year, and said the clubs still had about $100 million saved in their lockout fund last winter.

"While we disagree with the amount of damages awarded, it is important to remember the events in question began more than five years ago," O'Connor said. Collusion history, Page C9

Feb. 3, 1986: Major League Baseball Players Association filed the first collusion grievance, charging owners acted in concert in a boycott of free agents following the 1985 season.

Feb. 20, 1987: The union filed a second grievance, charging the boycott extended beyond the 1986 season.

Sept. 21, 1987: Arbitrator Thomas Roberts ruled teams conspired to "destroy" free agency after the 1985 season.

Jan. 19, 1988: The union filed a third grievance, charging the boycott continued in part following the 1987 season and that management's Player Relations Committee operated a free agent "information bank" in violation of the collective bargaining agreement.

Jan. 22, 1988: Roberts made seven players from the first collusion case "new look" free agents: Kirk Gibson, Carlton Fisk, Juan Beniquez, Tom Brookens, Donnie Moore, Joe Niekro and Butch Wynegar.

Aug. 31, 1988: Arbitrator George Nicolau ruled owners conspired against free agents following the 1986 season.

Oct. 24, 1988: Nicolau made 12 players from the second collusion case "new look" free agents: Doyle Alexander, Alan Ashby, Bob Boone, Jim Clancy, Ken Dayley, Brian Downing, Rich Gedman, Ron Guidry, Willie Randolph, Roy Smith, Claudell Washington and Ernie Whitt.

Aug. 31, 1989: Roberts ordered clubs to pay $10.5 million for damages during the 1986 season.

July 18, 1990: Nicolau ruled owners conspired against free agents following the 1987 season and that the "information bank" violated the collective bargaining agreement.

Sept. 17, 1990: Nicolau ordered owners to pay $102.5 million for damages during the 1987 and 1988 seasons.