John Olerud left the New York Mets for the Seattle Mariners as the first key free agent deadline of the offseason approached last night, and teams cut off negotiations with 73 of their former players.

The World Series champion New York Yankees said goodbye to catcher Joe Girardi and infielder Luis Sojo, the Anaheim Angels let go of left-hander Chuck Finley and the Cincinnati Reds said farewell to outfielder Greg Vaughn and pitchers Steve Avery and Mark Wohlers.

Meanwhile, 22 players were offered arbitration, a group that included outfielder Wil Cordero and left-hander Chris Haney (Cleveland Indians) and three players who left the National League champion Atlanta Braves to become free agents: shortstop Jose Hernandez, right-hander Rudy Seanez and outfielder Gerald Williams.

Players offered arbitration may accept the offers through Dec. 19 and negotiate with their teams through Jan. 8. Players not offered arbitration can't re-sign with their former teams until May 1. Also, teams can sign these players without losing amateur draft picks as compensation.

Among those were right-handers Andy Benes, John Burkett, Orel Hershiser and Bobby Witt; catcher Benito Santiago; infielders Jeff Blauser, Tony Fernandez, Mickey Morandini and Ed Sprague; outfielder Paul Sorrento; and designated hitter Harold Baines.

Right-hander Jeff Brantley re-signed with the Philadelphia Phillies, agreeing to a $250,000, one-year contract that gives him the chance to earn an additional $2.5 million in roster and performance bonuses.

Shortstop Rey Sanchez agreed to a $4.6 million, two-year contract with the Kansas City Royals, and the Texas Rangers signed two players just before the midnight deadline, left-hander Mike Munoz ($850,000) and second baseman Luis Alicea ($750,000).

Atlanta agreed to a minor league deal with outfielder Brian Hunter, who would get a $350,000, one-year contract if he makes the team. The Cleveland Indians agreed to a minor league deal with left-hander Mark Langston, who would get a $300,000, one-year contract if he is added to the major league roster.

Others offered arbitration were first baseman Jeff Conine and left-hander Arthur Rhodes (Baltimore Orioles); right-hander Omar Olivares (Oakland Athletics); left-hander Norm Charlton (Tampa Bay Devil Rays); right-hander Aaron Sele and third baseman Todd Zeile (Texas Rangers); left-hander Graeme Lloyd and first baseman David Segui (Toronto Blue Jays); right-hander Steve Trachsel (Chicago Cubs); right-hander Juan Guzman (Cincinnati Reds); outfielder Shawon Dunston and left-hander Kenny Rogers (New York Mets); third baseman Dale Sveum (Pittsburgh Pirates); and outfielder Thomas Howard and left-hander Darren Oliver (St. Louis Cardinals).

Olerud, one of the top free agents, opted to return to his home town by agreeing to a $20 million, three-year contract with the Mariners.

The first baseman, coming off an $8 million, two-year deal, said the Mets made a "very comparable" offer. The contract with Seattle calls for salaries of $6.35 million in 2000, $6.7 million in 2001 and $6.95 million in 2002. . . .

Richie Phillips's Major League Umpires Association filed objections against the federally supervised election, which it lost last week to an insurgent union.

Phillips's union has until Dec. 14 to submit its evidence to the National Labor Relations Board.

"After we see the evidence, we'll decide whether to set it for a hearing or decide it administratively," said Daniel Silverman, the NLRB's New York regional director.

The Major League Umpires Independent Organizing Committee won the election 57-35, with one vote disqualified because an umpire signed his ballot. . . .

Investors who wanted to buy the Oakland Athletics have withdrawn their $12 million deposit, three months after Major League Baseball refused to approve the deal.

Boxing

Tyson's Ferrets Found Abused

Mike Tyson has been called a lot of things. Until now, ferret abuser has not been one of them.

A volunteer ferret rescuer said she took one dead ferret and another scared one from Tyson's Las Vegas home last month after being called to the residence by one of the former heavyweight champion's aides.

Animal control officers are trying to determine who owned the animals, but C.J. Jones said she was told they were Tyson's when she went to the house.

Jones, who runs 24-Carat Ferret Rescue out of her home, said she and another rescue worker found a dead ferret and another frantically pacing at the top of a cage in Tyson's backyard Nov. 18.

Jones said the cage had no food or water and the surviving ferret appeared malnourished.

She said Tyson assistant Darryl Francis, who led the women to the ferrets, told her the animals ran out of food and no one bothered to buy more.

Jones said when she returned to Tyson's house the following week, Francis realized the incident might reflect poorly on his boss and said the ferrets were his. Jones filed a complaint with animal control officers about the incident.

Horse Racing

Pincay Back in the Saddle

Laffit Pincay Jr., who is three victories away from breaking Bill Shoemaker's career record of 8,833 wins, resumes his pursuit today when he rides in seven races at Hollywood Park in California.

Pincay, 52, is the leading jockey through the first 20 days of the 31-day meeting, with 19 winners.

Auto Racing

NASCAR Eyes New Jersey

The Meadowlands sports complex and a former airport in southern New Jersey are being considered as sites for a stock car racing track that could seat 200,000 fans.

The Newark Star-Ledger reported NASCAR and at least two companies that build and manage racetracks would spend at least $250 million to construct a facility on one of the sites. The report quoted industry officials, politicians and officials from the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority.

International Speedway Corp. has approached the authority about its East Rutherford, N.J., complex, authority spokesman John Samerjan said.

"NASCAR has expressed an interest in the metro area," he said. "There are many, many ideas under discussion about how to prepare the complex for the next five to 25 years."

Meadowlands officials are developing plans for an arena they hope will keep the New Jersey Nets and New Jersey Devils playing in East Rutherford, despite the Nets' desire to move the team to Newark and the Devils' plans to move to Hoboken, N.J. . . .

Robbie Loomis was named the crew chief and Brian Whitesell was hired as the team manager for three-time Winston Cup champion Jeff Gordon, Hendrick Motorsports announced.

Loomis, 35, served as crew chief for Petty Enterprises' No. 43 car for nine years and was team manager for both Petty drivers (John Andretti and Kyle Petty) while serving as Andretti's crew chief last season.

Whitesell, who has been part of Gordon's team since its inception, will guide the team's operations. He assisted Ray Evernham and succeeded him when Evernham left to become a car owner.

Golf

Fleischer Is Top Senior

Bruce Fleischer was named the Senior PGA Tour's player and rookie of the year after becoming the first rookie to lead the tour in earnings since Lee Trevino in 1990.

Fleischer, 51, set a rookie record with $2,515,705 in prize money--$820,594 more than he won in more than 400 events on the PGA Tour--and won seven events. He joins Miller Barber, Bruce Crampton and Trevino as the only players to win seven events in their first season on the Senior Tour.

Olympics

USOC Vows to Help Disabled

The U.S. Olympic Committee's Executive Committee vowed Monday to find new funding sources for disabled athletes while allowing national governing bodies to handle disabled programs in their own way.

Responding to a mandate from the Amateur Sports Act and to a discrimination lawsuit from one of the USOC's officials, the Executive Committee met for more than six hours Monday to discuss the future of disabled sports and how to integrate them into its programs for able-bodied athletes.

At issue is "vertical integration," which would transfer elite disabled athletes from the organizations that govern them--disabled sports organizations--to the national governing bodies (NGBs) that oversee able-bodied athletes in those sports, such as USA Swimming.

Tennis

Rafter Cautious in Return

Two-time U.S. Open champion Patrick Rafter said if he plays at the Australian Open, it might only be in doubles.

Rafter, who is recovering from shoulder surgery, said he probably would not enter next year's opening Grand Slam event directly but would take a wild card from tournament organizers.

That would allow him to skip the singles but remain eligible to defend his doubles title with Sweden's Jonas Bjorkman. Rafter practiced Monday for the first time since surgery in October to repair a torn rotator cuff.