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Baseball's most exciting season in years will almost certainly come to a halt after tonight's games.

Talks between players and owners broke off Wednesday and no further meetings were scheduled before Friday's strike deadline.Management negotiator Richard Ravitch still insists on a salary cap, and union head Donald Fehr says players never will accept one.

"We will continue to hope that maybe, as Don put it in the meeting, that lightning will strike and one of us will have a good idea that can bridge this gap in the next day-and-a-half," Ravitch said after a 21/2-hour meeting. "I'm not optimistic."

Fehr, saying the atmosphere reminds him of the 50-day strike of 1981, was even more gloomy.

"At this point, I see no reason to believe anything of significance will occur today or any time soon," Fehr said. "Nothing else is scheduled."

Ravitch today repeated the theme of the owners' argument, that they need control over player costs, and that a salary cap would do it.

"We guarantee the players they will make no less . . . but we need control over the player costs," Ravitch said on NBC's "Today" show.

Fehr, who also appeared on the program, repeated the union's contention that the owners were trying to resolve their revenue-sharing problems by making the players pay for it.

"If the owners have problems, they have to solve them, not the players," Fehr said.

Both Fehr and Ravitch were glum at the start of what could be baseball's final day of the season.

Anyone looking for a hopeful sign might see one in Ravitch's comment: "We are willing to compromise. Ours is not a rigid offer."

Fehr said hope would not end with the strike.

"If you can't get it done today," he said, "you keep trying."

Even before Wednesday night's games, Cincinnati Reds players already were wearing T-shirts that said: "On Strike."

A walkout would imperil the final 52 days and 668 games of the regular season. And it would threaten the World Series, which has been played annually since 1905.

"Of course the situation is distressing, no question about it," executive council chairman Bud Selig said in Milwaukee. "I'm still very much a fan at heart. But we are where we are because we have economic problems that should have been resolved long ago but were ignored or repressed."

Both sides spoke on Wednesday as if baseball's eighth work stoppage since 1972 already had begun, but neither was willing to predict when talks would resume or when the $1.8 billion-a-year industry would restart.

With no progress at the table, players made plans to go home Friday in what would be the first midseason interruption of baseball since a two-day strike in 1985. Some clubs that are off today said they wouldn't travel to the sites of Friday's games.

Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda gave his end-of-season speech after Los Angeles beat Cincinnati 6-3 Wednesday night.

"He just thanked us for putting him in the position he's in, manager of the first-place club in the West," Dodgers first baseman Eric Karros said. "Hopefully we'll hear another farewell speech this year."