What could be the biggest week in the bitter baseball talks begins slowly. And there's a chance that the twice-delayed deadline for implementation of a salary cap could be extended yet again.

Acting commissioner Bud Selig, speaking Sunday from his home in Milwaukee, said Thursday's deadline for an agreement between striking players and ownership stands for now. But he said owners might pause once again if the two sides come closer this week."We'll see what kind of progress there is. That's something we'll have to use common sense on," said Selig, the Milwaukee Brewers' owner.

Owners voted last Thursday to give the ruling executive council, headed by Selig, the authority to declare an impasse and impose a salary cap if there isn't a deal by Thursday.

"That's a date the clubs agreed to," Selig said. "But let's see what happens. At this point, I don't want to speculate on that. This group has until Friday to make a deal."

The news that Selig might be willing to extend the deadline once again, this time past Christmas, didn't come as a huge surprise to union head Donald Fehr.

"We've had a lot of deadlines in this thing that haven't meant much, whether it was our original strike date or their one last week," Fehr said. "I have absolutely no expectations - I'm taking this day by day. That we're bargaining at all is better, of course, than not talking. But I wouldn't venture a guess as to where this leads us."

Today's talks were expected to be conducted at a low level, with staff meetings rather than full bargaining groups. Philadelphia Phillies co-general partner Dave Montgomery was the only member of management's team expected - plus lawyers, of course. Boston Red Sox chief executive officer John Harrington, management's chief negotiator, expected to arrive Tuesday.

If the talks fail, and the owners take steps to impose the salary cap so steadfastly opposed by the players, Fehr warned the next battle would continue in litigation.

"The general point is, if they declare an impasse and implement the cap, we're not afraid of our legal options," Fehr said. "We believe we have a wide range of approaches, and we'll pursue all of them."

The first act would be for the union to file an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board to intervene. If the NLRB finds the charge has merit, it would issue a complain and ask a federal court for an injunction.

"We've been trying all the way to make a deal, but we've been negotiating among ourselves," Fehr said. "There's been very little movement on the other side, and it takes two."

The NLRB has already announced its intention to issue a complaint against the owners for failing to make a $7.8 million payment to the players' pension fund in August.

But for now, each side says it would rather have a deal - on its terms.

"If there wasn't any progress last week, we wouldn't be back," said Milwaukee catcher B.J. Surhoff, who arrived Sunday evening. "There's still a bridge to be built, but we're here to get a deal."

Last week, the sides thought they were making progress. Management's bargaining team expected a new offer from the union on Wednesday, but the owners left after no offer was made. Union officials claim they never promised a new plan.

"We shall see," Selig said. "I'm just hopeful that we can continue the progress we appeared to be making last week."