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With a players' counter-proposal on the table and one report indicating that the start of the season could be delayed until April 24, most media observers this morning are reserving judgment on the possibility of a negotiated settlement until after U.S. District Judge Sonia Sotomayor rules on the NLRB's request for an injunction. INJUNCTION JUNCTION: Judge Sotomayor ruled that she would allow no witnesses at this morning's proceedings. Although she has not said when she would rule, "sources said she gave the principals the distinct impression she would decide before Sunday night's season opener -- probably tomorrow" (Jayson Stark, PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER, 3/31). "Both sides see Sotomayor's decision as the point of critical mass that could shake loose the impasse" (Larry Whiteside, BOSTON GLOBE, 3/31). ESPN's Peter Gammons: "Whether or not [the players] get the injunction really shifts the leverage in this thing. If the players get it and they can threaten to come back, the owners are up against a real gun" ("SportsCenter," 3/30). REPLACEMENT VOTE: The owners voted 26-2 by phone to authorize the use of replacement players, with only the Orioles and Blue Jays dissenting. The Yankees' George Steinbrenner was an original no vote, but changed in "a show of solidarity" (Mark Maske, WASHINGTON POST, 3/31). HARRINGTON'S TAKE: Red Sox CEO John Harrington put chances for avoiding replacements at "50-50," but quickly added: "I'm not talking about a settlement. I'm talking about the possibility that there might be some agreement with regard to playing the championship season with regular players." Harrington also "hinted for the first time" that the owners might abide by an injunction, even without further conditions. Harrington: "If [Fehr] puts conditions on [ending the strike], all we have to do is say no -- or we could negotiate on those conditions." Harrington noted that beyond the injunction, Sotomayor's options are limited. She could rule on arbitration and central bargaining, and, according to Harrington, "under those conditions, Donald would have to make an unconditional offer. ... I just hope he's ready" (George Kimball, BOSTON HERALD, 3/31). Also in Boston, Will McDonough & Nick Cafardo report an injunction could lead to an April 24 start date. If the owners don't lock out and the players pledge not to strike and to continue good faith negotiations, the season could be shortened to 150 games. The Red Sox replacement team will not fly to Minneapolis until Monday (BOSTON GLOBE, 3/31). I'LL SEE THAT 25%, AND RAISE YOU ... MLBPA Exec Dir Don Fehr announced last night that the players had verbally agreed to accept the owners' offer to retain the old system of arbitration and free agency, and that other "secondary issues were all but settled." That left the luxury tax and the term of the proposed system as the "only major issues blocking an agreement." The players offered a 25% tax on payrolls above $50M. The owners' remain at 50% at $44M (Peter Schmuck, Baltimore SUN, 3/31). USA TODAY's Hal Bodley writes that management "was crushed" by the union's offer. They were expecting a tax rate of at least 30% on payrolls above $50M (USA TODAY, 3/31). "Sources on both sides believe the negotiations will resume at an intense level Saturday. Fehr said the union is ready to return to the table and stay there" (Ross Newhan, L.A. TIMES, 3/31). Gammons: "The question is, when and if the owners come back and start negotiating, are they going to really negotiate, or are they just going to sit there and hold the line while the players do all the movement? ... The players really do want to get something done" ("Baseball Tonight," 3/30). PLAYERS GETTING ANTSY? In Denver, Tracy Ringolsby reports that union leadership "is feeling a backlash from its members, who expressed concern this week about the failure to make a quick response to the owners' Monday offer. The pressure apparently forced Fehr to speed up his counterproposal" (ROCKY MOUNTAIN NEWS, 3/31).
Maryland Stadium Authority Chair John Moag said yesterday that they may file an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL for "illegally interferring" with Baltimore's attempt to get a team. Moag noted that the suit would be part of a "two-track strategy" to get an NFL team, with plans to "keep trying to persuade" a current NFL team to move to Baltimore (Vito Stellino, Baltimore SUN, 3/31).
Reports that NHL players are sure to play in the '98 Winter Games in Nagano appear to be a bit "premature," according to today's TORONTO SUN. Recently, IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, NHLPA Exec Dir Bob Goodenow and IIHF President Rene Fasel met in Switzerland to discuss the possibility of a hockey "Dream Team." The latest reports from Europe, however, "indicate there's no unanimity among the group" and that several major issues have to be settled before the plan is given the "go-ahead." Goodenow: "We have some hockey issues to solve. That includes the impact on the players who might play and those who might not. Moreover, we have to go over some business issues" (George Gross, TORONTO SUN, 3/31). NHL IN ZURICH? There is speculation overseas that the NHL will open its European headquarters in Zurich "in the near future to take merchandising and licensing programs in-house." Former FIFA press chief Guido Tognoni would be the Managing Dir of the office (TORONTO SUN, 3/31).