This weekend. Immediately if not sooner. Now or never.
That's the deadline, not simply to end this ridiculous strike, but to forge a new collective bargaining agreement.
Let's not hear any talk about playing the 1995 season under the old economic rules and continuing negotiations toward a settlement.
That is the worst possible solution.
Think about it: A season that starts a month late, topped off by the threat of another strike.
The lawyers would rejoice.
And the game would be in ruins.
How do you sell tickets for a season that is compromised to begin with, and might be aborted in August?
Oh, Donald Fehr would say, that's their problem.
What a crock.
It's Fehr's problem, too -- a big-time problem, when the owners can't scrounge up the money to pay his oppressed laborers.
Actually, Fehr wouldn't mind that.
Another legal battle.
Logic dictates that a settlement occur this weekend. Of course, logic means little in a dispute in which one side's idea of fun is canceling the World Series.
The bottom line is, Fehr needs a deal to cut his losses, and keep the Lenny Dykstras of the union from staging a mass revolt.
They'll be in even worse shape than the players if Judge Sonia Sotomayor -- suddenly the biggest name in baseball -- grants the injunction requested by the National Labor Relations Board.
If she doesn't?
Uh, then the players crumble.
The injunction would restore salary arbitration, competitive free agency and all that other fun stuff. It would cause the players to end the strike. And it would leave the owners frantic.
They could lock out the major-leaguers and use replacement players, but they'd be defying a federal judge and exposing themselves to further legal action.
Even Robert Ballow, the hard-line labor attorney, is advising the owners to proceed with caution. If their lockout was found to be illegal, they'd be liable for back pay with interest -- close to $1 billion over a full season.
Still, that might be the preferred option.
Plan B is no lockout.
Plan B, from a strategic standpoint, makes even less sense.
It would be a disgrace if the owners can't get the necessary 75 percent vote to approve a lockout. It would mean they canceled the World Series for nothing. It would mean they lied about their financial distress.
It would mean they caved in -- again.
From the beginning, the only rationale for the owners' hard-line negotiating position was to win at all costs and break the union.
If they concede the 1995 season -- play it under the old work rules, without an agreement -- then what was the point?
The owners never cease to amaze. They claimed they'd go bankrupt if forced to play another season under the old work rules. But that's exactly what they offered in their last proposal.
All these owners set to vote against the lockout -- where have they been the last seven months? Peter Angelos was the only one who spoke out. Everyone else was gutless.
George Steinbrenner, Peter O'Malley and Co. -- they should have put an end to this a long time ago, should have stopped Bud Selig and Jerry Reinsdorf when it was still possible.
Instead, they sold out the sport.
Now, the only way out is a settlement, a settlement in which everyone will lose, a settlement that should have been reached last August.
The owners claim the strike has cost them $700 million, and even if an agreement is reached today, they won't make it back for a long, long time.
They're not going to get a hard salary cap. They're not going to eliminate salary arbitration. They're not going to accomplish any of their major goals.
The players, on the other hand, can win with the NLRB, win in federal court, and it still won't matter. The tax will restrict salaries -- for free agents, for arbitration eligibles, for everyone.
To think, these are the best-case scenarios.
If these dunderheads don't reach an agreement this weekend, the replacement games will start, and the sport might never recover.
They need to settle.
They have to settle.