The baseball world was expected to be turned upside down today.

Three months and a day after the World Series was canceled for the first time in 90 years, owners planned to impose a salary cap - wiping out salary arbitration and provoking a nasty and lengthy legal battle with their players."The salary cap ruins free agency and there's no price on freedom," pitcher Orel Hershiser said Wednesday after negotiations collapsed in Rye Brook, N.Y.

Players, who struck the final 52 days and 669 games of last season, have vowed to continue the walkout next year unless owners agree to preserve free agency, a right they won before the 1976 season.

Owners refused to back off their demand for cost controls and left for Chicago two hours after Wednesday's session began. They left little doubt they would declare an impasse and impose a cap.

"We remain deadlocked at this time over the central issue of cost control," said John Harrington, the chief negotiator for the owners. "The union has refused to make any proposal on the critical issue of linking player costs to gross revenue."

Since owners reopened the labor contract on Dec. 7, 1992, union head Donald Fehr has predicted owners would attempt to impose a cap. Four rounds of talks under the supervision of former Labor Secretary W.J. Usery, appointed in mid-October by the Clinton administration, produced scant progress.

"Sure there's disappointment, but I don't think any of us are surprised by where we're at," Atlanta Braves pitcher Tom Glavine said. "We're trying to maintain what little amount of freedom we have."

If owners impose a cap - Baltimore owner Peter Angelos is the only announced opponent of the move - they would eliminate salary arbitration, which has existed since 1974. And they would force some teams to cut as much as $5.6 million from their payrolls next season.

They also would eliminate rules that limit the amount a player's salary can be cut and insert clauses into contracts requiring each player to make 20 free promotional appearances per year. In short: It would change just about everything about the game except balls and strikes.

The union would challenge such a move as early as Friday, asking the National Labor Relations Board to seek an injunction in federal court on grounds that there is no impasse and that owners haven't bargained in good faith.

The NLRB ruled against owners Wednesday, announcing it will file two unfair labor practice complaints, alleging that management illegally failed to make a $7.8 million contribution in August to the union's benefit plan.

"If we end up having to file another charge that they haven't bargained in good faith, we'll be filing before an agency that's determined they haven't bargained in good faith at least in one instance," said union lawyer Doyle Pryor, who called the decision "very significant."

Management lawyer Chuck O'Connor tried to downplay the event as routine, saying the NLRB decided to go ahead with the action because of inconsistencies in the facts of the case.

Usery said last week that he urged owners not to impose a cap, saying it would make his job more difficult. He took a softer approach during his news conference following the breakoff.

"That is a decision for the ownership to do," Usery said. "Even if they implement, they still have to reach an agreement."

Usery said talks will resume at some point, but the immediate future of the fight probably lies in court and before the NLRB.

"We haven't reached the end of the road yet," Usery said. "We simply ran out of time in this case."

Harrington, the chief executive officer of the Boston Red Sox, left no doubt about the owners' intention to impose a cap.

"We will be making a recommendation along that line," he said, referring to his negotiating committee.

Players say the strike, baseball's eighth work stoppage since 1972, will continue into spring training unless there's an agreement. Owners are preparing to start the 1995 season with replacement players.

"Players will go back on the field when a proper collective bargaining agreement is reached. There's no doubt about that," Fehr said.