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When baseball owners announced their willingness to return to the bargaining table, the first inclination was to search for ulterior motives.

Only Wednesday, management negotiator John Harrington said that talks between owners and striking players had broken down and that implementation of a salary cap was imminent.Then Thursday came, and the owners instead decided to give their executive council authority to declare an impasse if there isn't an agreement by Dec. 22.

Why wait?

Were the owners afraid of being taken to court? Were they worried about Congress removing their antitrust protection? Were they posturing for the fans? Or were they truly interested in negotiation and not implementation?

They insist it's the latter.

"This gesture," Harrington said, "is the olive branch to say, `Listen, let's make peace for now and many years to come.' "

Atlanta Braves president Stan Kasten, another member of the negotiating committee, said: "For months, all you heard from the union is, `They have this proposed master plan, all they want to do is implement.' It's become a self-fulfilling prophecy. They sit there and refuse to negotiate the economic core issues until there's literally nothing else to be done. But we want and need a negotiated settlement - not an implemented settlement, not one in the courts, not one in Congress."

Union head Donald Fehr welcomed the opportunity to resume talks, probably Monday near Washington. But he wouldn't predict if players would make a new proposal.

"While we do not agree that we are at an impasse, we do agree that it is appropriate to continue talking, and we are encouraged by that." Fehr said from his office in New York. "Obviously, if they are willing to negotiate, so are we."

Mediator Bill Usery also is ready.

"It'd be a nice Christmas present to the fans to give them back baseball, to open the camps and have spring training," Usery said from Alexandria, Va. "I'm very happy with the decision."

Owners approved their decision by a 25-3 vote, according to several participants, with the Baltimore Orioles, New York Mets and Toronto Blue Jays opposing. Baltimore owner Peter Angelos, Mets president Fred Wilpon and Blue Jays president Paul Beeston all spoke out against imposition.

"Obviously, they want to take any little scintilla of hope and see if there's anything there before we implement," acting commissioner Bud Selig said.

"Only time will tell. Deals have been made in industries a lot larger than this, when they had pressure points and both sides knew they had to get something done. If it isn't, then next Friday morning at 12:01, the implementation process will begin."

If so, it could happen in the same week that NHL commissioner Gary Bettman cancels the 1994-95 hockey season. That league's owners, who have locked out players since opening night, gave Bettman such authority if a 50-game regular season can't be played.

Baseball owners, threatening to open the '95 season with replacement players, want the union to accept a predetermined percentage of revenue or agree to a tax mechanism that will penalize clubs with high payrolls. The players, who won free agency prior to the 1976 season, say caps and punitive taxes would crush the market.

But the threat of a new system hasn't stopped owners from spending millions on free agents this offseason.

"There's a lot of money in this sport," Kasten said. "There will continue to be, whether we're under a salary cap system or tax system. We're just trying to slow down the escalation of salaries."

Both sides appear to be posturing.

The union has been accused of stalling because it hopes to challenge an imposed cap before the National Labor Relations Board, which then might seek an injunction against owners in federal court.

Management would have to defend its declaration of impasse, and owners certainly would cite the one-week delay as evidence of good faith.

"If we wanted to implement, we could have implemented some time ago," Selig said. "Taking unilateral action is a last resort."

Kasten laughed when asked if players might perceive Thursday's decision as weakness on management's part.

"Either we're weak and afraid to implement a cap or all we want to do is implement a cap," he said. "Which is it?"

In truth, it might have been some of each.

Several owners apparently went into Thursday's four-hour meeting ready to vote for implementation but changed their minds after hearing the negotiating committee's recommendation.

On the way into the meeting, Cincinnati's Marge Schott said she definitely wanted to impose a cap and said a delay "just makes the lawyers more money."

And afterward, Minnesota's Carl Pohlad said: "Yes, there were those of us that thought implementation should have been passed."

Both Pohlad and Schott, however, voted for the delay.

The owners' decision was contingent on the union agreeing to push back the deadlines of baseball's business calendar.

Originally, owners said they had to have a deal by Dec. 7, the deadline for clubs to offer salary arbitration to their former players who became free agents, but the sides agreed to push that back 10 days along with the owners' meeting, originally scheduled for Dec. 5.

Fehr said he would urge the union's executive board to push back that date again, along with the Dec. 20 deadline for offering 1995 contracts to unsigned players. Clubs don't want to tender contracts under the current system and commit themselves to another winter of salary arbitration.

"I'm sure they'll go along," Fehr said.

Then, it's back to the bargaining table to see if Selig's "scintilla of hope" can grow into a deal.

"The fact that we're willing to walk through these doors of deadlines and open them up again should show you we're dead-set on negotiating this dispute," Harrington said. "We postponed last week's deadline, and here we are again."