NEW YORK -- Baseball players said the union agreed to a drug-testing deal Tuesday, while commissioner Bud Selig planned to join the talks and teams began pushing back flights to prepare for a strike.
The sides met three times Tuesday, holding two-on-two discussions instead of trading formal proposals among the full negotiating committees.
''The drug testing is a done deal,'' Los Angeles Dodgers player representative Paul Lo Duca said. ''We agreed on that, and that's great. They're getting closer and closer.''
Rob Manfred, management's top labor lawyer, wouldn't say if owners agreed to the testing plan.
''We made progress on the drug issue,'' he said. ''Right now, I'm not confirming or denying any agreements, proposals or potential agreements.''
While there were upbeat assessments two days before the scheduled walkout, some teams made strike preparations.
The Chicago White Sox called off their Thursday charter to Detroit and said they would travel Friday only if there isn't a walkout. Boston rescheduled its charter to Cleveland for Friday, too, but St. Louis will travel Thursday for the following day's game at the Chicago Cubs, which would be the first game affected by a strike.
Selig didn't know when the last moment would be for a settlement that would enable the schedule to remain uninterrupted.
''The closer you get to the date, it's tougher,'' he said from his home in Milwaukee.
Negotiators met briefly Tuesday morning, and players held a telephone conference call with the union staff. The sides, trying to avert baseball's ninth work stoppage since 1972, held a lengthy session in the afternoon and met late at night for about 45 minutes before recessing.
''They're trying to get the structure figured out as much as they can without making formal proposals back and forth and eliminating some of the unneeded red tape in the middle,'' said Arizona's Rick Helling, a member of the union's executive board. ''It's more just informal talks to see if they can find a common ground.''
Lo Duca said the drug agreement included a penalty phase for positive tests, and help would be available for players who have problems.
''They're going to have the random testing for steroids, marijuana and cocaine,'' Lo Duca said. ''What they agreed on was once in spring training, and then random tests during the year, which I think is very good. Once you put the word 'random' in there, you don't know when it's going to happen, so I think it's going to keep guys off and I think that's good for the game.''
Brandon Inge, Detroit's assistant player representative, said players agreed to random drug testing for two years. If 5 percent or more of those tests come back positive in either year, mandatory testing would be required for all players.
''We're willing to do whatever they want with that,'' he said.
Atlanta's Tom Glavine, the NL player representative, thought the sides were headed to a deal that would avert baseball's ninth work stoppage since 1972.
''I think there are still going to be some ups and downs between now and Thursday,'' he said, ''but ultimately I'm optimistic that we're going to get something done.''
Some still expect a walkout.
''I plan on striking Friday,'' Red Sox pitcher John Burkett said. ''I think it's going to be long. I'm just going by my experience in '94.''
The tone of the meetings was far more serious than in earlier days, several people on both sides of the negotiations said on condition of anonymity. Manfred and Bob DuPuy, baseball's chief operating officer, were at the sessions along with Steve Fehr, the brother of the union leader, and Michael Weiner, the union's No. 3 official.
Manfred said no new proposals have been made since management's offer Sunday.
''We did, however, have conceptual discussions aimed at resolving the differences between us,'' he said, adding: ''We have time to make an agreement.''
Owners and players disagreed on how much to increase revenue sharing and on the level of a luxury tax on high-payroll teams that would slow salary increases.
Tuesday morning's session, according to a general manager who spoke on the condition of anonymity, touched on the union's desire not to have a luxury tax in the final year of the proposed contract, which would run through the 2006 season.
''A deal, if both sides wanted, could be done in a day, that's how close we are at this point,'' Inge said.
Burkett thinks the players already have moved too far toward owners.
''They pretty much won the negotiation. They've pretty much got everything they wanted,'' said the pitcher, who had urged players to boycott last month's All-Star game in Selig's hometown of Milwaukee.
Some players scoffed at suggestions several owners believe they won't strike if there's no deal.
''They doubted them in '94. They've doubted them since '72, probably,'' St. Louis player representative Steve Kline said. ''Obviously, we walked every time. This year won't be any different.''
Some players feared Selig could distance himself from a deal reached by his lawyers. Manfred said that while only 16 votes are needed to approve an agreement, 23 are needed for revenue sharing changes.
''The negotiating committee that is here has full authority to reach an agreement on behalf of the 30 clubs,'' Manfred said. ''But trust me, if we can reach an agreement, we will have fully consulted with and will have the commissioner on board with anything we do.''
Seeking to increase competitive balance, owners want to increase the percentage of locally generated revenue that teams share, and they want to tax high-payroll teams to discourage spending.
Management's last offer would tax the portions of payrolls over $107 million in the first three years of the new contract, a threshold that would increase to $111 million in 2006.
Players have proposed thresholds of $125 million next year, $135 million in 2004, $145 million in 2005 and no tax in the final season of the deal.
Owners also want teams to share 36 percent of locally generated revenue, up from 20 percent this year. The union proposed 33.3 percent, with the increase phased in.
AP Sports Writer Beth Harris contributed to this story from Los Angeles.
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