CINCINNATI -- Major-league owners appeared to set the stage for baseball's angriest confrontation yesterday when they approved by unanimous vote a labor proposal believed to create broad new limits on player salaries.
Details of the management proposal were the subject of intense speculation yesterday, mostly because owners leaving a lengthy afternoon meeting refused to discuss them until after a negotiating session Tuesday with player representatives.
But a central point of the plan almost certainly is a salary cap that would limit player salaries by tying them to owners' overall revenues. That would create the darkest cloud yet over the 1994 season, because union officials have threatened a midseason strike if the owners refuse to back away from a cap.
In announcing the vote, Bud Selig, head of the ruling Executive Council, put the emphasis on unity among owners and what he said was a growing willingness among the 28 clubs to put aside parochial interests for the good of the game.
He wasn't as eager to talk about the growing possibility of a strike that might take a sizable chunk out of -- or end prematurely -- the season.
"A year ago, we could not have sat in that room and had a rational discussion, yet that is what we did today," Selig said of the owners' closed-door deliberations. "Frankly, the group itself is a little surprised."
Unity seemed to be the buzzword for the day. The owners also voted to, in effect, make it more difficult to reach agreement with the players union. They voted 28-0 to require a three-quarters majority to approve a settlement. In past years, a simple majority was enough.
Donald Fehr, head of the Major League Baseball Players Association, called the development "ominous" and "extraordinarily negative."
"It would allow eight owners to perpetuate a dispute," Fehr said from Washington. "That is not a step in the right direction. It's a direction of people preparing for war."
The votes were a double victory for owners who have long wanted fundamental changes in the collective bargaining agreement, a group led by Selig, Milwaukee Brewers president, and Chicago White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf.
It was also a banner day for Richard Ravitch, the owners' chief labor negotiator, and the architect of management's salary-cap plan. Ravitch has spent the past two years aggressively lobbying owners to support the plan and to stick together in the likely event that the players resisted the economic changes.
Selig said the plan approved by the owners yesterday looked very much like the one Ravitch brought here two days ago.
Still, questions remain about how strongly owners will support a salary cap, and whether that strength might be eroded by the threat of a lengthy strike.
Some clubs clearly have more to lose than others if the players leave their jobs. The players union hasn't announced a strike date, but Aug. 1 is believed to be a likely one.
The biggest losers would be teams drawing the biggest crowds and the clubs purchased in the past five to 10 years. Owners of those clubs have the biggest investments and, in most cases, the largest debts.
The Orioles -- because they draw extremely well and were the most expensive team in baseball history to buy at $173 million -- would seem to be hardest hit of all.
But any criticism of the labor situation from Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos has been saved for the meetings themselves.
Angelos declined to speak about the proposal yesterday. In the past, he has said he would favor a plan that helps baseball's long-term financial future, even if it hurts the Orioles in the short run.