"We've been asked repeatedly whether it was possible to do something for next year, and initially we said no," said economist Andrew Zimbalist, one of the UBL's four co-founders. "But the amount of enthusiasm for the project has led us to keep that an open question. I don't know that we could do it, but it's possible."
The UBL is a creation of Zimbalist, agent Dick Moss, Texas congressman John Bryant and former congressman Bob Mrazek of New York. They have been working on the project since December.
They have recruited a supporting cast that includes Curt Flood, the former star of the St. Louis Cardinals (and of jurisprudence), as well as Tom McMillen, the onetime basketball luminary, and William Gray, the former Philadelphia congressman.
They haven't selected their 10 cities. But they plan to start with eight teams in the United States, one in Canada and one in Mexico.
The pool of cities will come from a group of more than two dozen teamless communities, including Washington; Buffalo;, Vancouver, British Columbia; Mexico City; Tampa-St. Petersburg, Fla.; and Phoenix.
The New York area probably would be represented by either Long Island or North Jersey. Los Angeles probably would be represented by San Bernardino- Riverside, Calif.
The Philadelphia area "is not at the top of our list in plausibility," Zimbalist said.
But the league has international ambitions. So by 1999, it plans to expand to 16 teams - some in Asia and the Caribbean.
It isn't a coincidence that the UBL came along when the major leagues were wallowing in the longest strike in sports history. But while this league "was not inspired" by the strike, Zimbalist said, it hopes to capitalize on baseball's sorry state to attract players, cities and fans.
It will do that with these features:
* "Fan friendliness." That means intimate old-style ballparks, numerous seats priced at $5 or less, some postseason games on Saturday afternoons, and a 6 o'clock start for all weekend night games.
* A "true partnership" with players. The players would have both a
financial and a decision-making stake in the UBL. They would have a say in how the league was run, would get 35 percent of their team's profits, and would receive 10 percent of the profits when any team was sold.
* A "new partnership with cities." Cities would get 15 percent of their team's pretax profits, would collect 15 percent of the capital gain if their club was sold, and would get a big cut of parking and luxury-box income. In return, they would charge no rent, build the ballparks, and run them.
* Greater minority representation. The UBL would actively seek minority investors and involve minorities in every facet of the league.
But the key to the league's success comes down to this: Who will play in it?
If it's Barry Bonds and Ken Griffey, it has a shot. If it's a lot of Biff Pocorobas, it's in trouble.
Zimbalist said each team's projected roster would consist of one "marquee player," 12 current major-leaguers and 12 other players who might come from the minor leagues, Japan, Korea, and so on.
While the average salary was projected at $600,000, Zimbalist conceded that ''if we want to have marquee players, we fully expect to put down $5 million or whatever the going rate is."
But are those salaries - plus a cut of the action and a role in the decision-making - enough to attract name players? Two prominent agents surveyed yesterday said yes.
"If you'd asked me a week ago, I probably would have told you I thought it was a slapdash proposition that didn't stand much of a chance," said agent Ron Shapiro.
"But now I think it's more viable than I originally thought - because they're not trying to shoot out of the box and play this year," he said. ''They're trying to do this right. And they've created some interesting incentives for players and municipalities who might want to get involved."
"I definitely think it can work," said agent Tony Attanasio. "I took a poll of my clients and asked them two questions. One was if they'd be interested in playing in something like this. And 100 percent of them said yes.
"Then I asked a second question: 'If the American League or National League wanted to pay you X amount, and a league like the UBL wanted to pay you less - but would give you a percent of the profits and a percent of the equity in the club - which would you choose?' And 100 percent chose the new league - because they're tired of dealing with all the bull they've been dealing with."
Meanwhile, what was the official reaction of acting commissioner Bud Selig? An emphatic: "We'll just wait and see what happens with it. At this time, we will have no further comment."