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Major Leaguers Agree To Play Ball Judge Rules Against Owners; A Lockout Vote Still Could Delay Season

Real baseball is real close.

After nearly eight months of no baseball and then replacement ball, major leaguers agreed to end their strike Friday when a federal judge ruled against the owners in the labor dispute.

One big question remained: When will they return?

Players say they’re ready to go - three weeks of spring training and opening day in late April.

Owners say: Not so fast.

The season is still scheduled to open Sunday night in Miami with replacement players who make up the New York Mets and Florida Marlins. But that’s uncertain, too.

Owners also have the option of locking out union players, but may not have the votes to do it. They will meet Sunday afternoon in Chicago to weigh their options.

In issuing the preliminary injunction against the owners, U.S. District Judge Sonia Sotomayor ordered them to restore free agent bidding, salary arbitration and the anti-collusion provisions of baseball’s expired collective bargaining agreement.

“Absent a lockout by the clubs, we can get real baseball on the field in a short period of time,” union chief Donald Fehr said.

“We could put together a quick spring training, and opening day would be delayed a little bit. We’d hope that the players would play the maximum number of games possible.”

The National Labor Relations Board had requested the injunction last Sunday.

Three days later, the union leadership voted unanimously to end the strike if Sotomayor issued the injunction.

If owners accept the players’ unconditional offer to return to work, Opening Day probably would be pushed back to the week of April 24, team officials said.

The 28 team owners did not appear to have the necessary 21 votes Friday to lock out the players.

Acting commissioner Bud Selig called the judge’s decision disappointing.

It “may represent a step backward in our negotiations for a meaningful agreement with the players’ union,” he said.

“I would guess it would be a very close vote,” he said.Sotomayor rejected all the arguments of

owners, who contend they can’t afford to field teams under last year’s contract provisions.

“Even though Opening Day is days away, the parties have time to salvage it,” she said.

Sotomayor, who grew up three miles from Yankee Stadium, noted the public interest in the strike, the longest ever in U.S. sports history. “You can’t grow up in the Bronx without knowing about baseball,” she said.

MEMO: This sidebar ran with story: WHAT’S NEXT? Owners will meet Sunday to consider their next step.

This sidebar ran with story: WHAT’S NEXT? Owners will meet Sunday to consider their next step.