Baseball’s ugliest fantasy league, starring replacement players , is chugging around third base and heading for home. With less than two weeks to go until Opening Day, the prospect of non-major leaguers filling major league uniforms is a virtual reality – and individual TV stations that carry baseball are trying to grapple with it in different ways.

In addition to the game’s national network partnership (NBC/ABC) and national cable deal (ESPN), the 28 major-league teams each have one or more TV deals with stations and cable nets, costing from $2 million to more than $40 million per programmer each season.

Several programmers with no confidence in replacement games’ ability to draw consistent advertisers or viewers, have approached team executives to demand drastic rebates on their rights fees before any replacements have stumbled out to the field and gone on the air.

Others say they’ve had nervous talks with teams about adjusting their deals sometime during the season, after experimenting with the dreaded scab games. Still others are clinging to the “wait-and-see” flag while claiming they’ve yet to broach the subject with their baseball brethren.

“You name a scenario, we’ve explored it,” said Dennis Thatcher, GM of WUAB in Cleveland, which has carried Indians game since 1980. “We’ve all been praying that they’d have a (strike) resolution by now.”

He and many of his colleagues say they’ve talked through many schemes. One involves attendance clauses – letting a stadium’s crowd size, in addition to TV viewership size, help determine rights-fee rebates. Another concerns transforming their rights-fee deals into revenue-sharing arrangements (ad revenues from game-casts, no matter how small, get divided between team and station), and new ratings formulas (lower audience numbers result in fee adjustments at some point).

In New York, one of the loudest shots was fired last week when a top New York Yankee official said that the team will do nothing to compensate its cable carrier (Madison Square Garden Network) and local indie carrier (WPIX) if audience and advertising numbers plummet in baseball’s replacement environment. The Yankees command the highest TV rights fees in all of baseball, estimated at more than $40 million per season for about 100 annual games on MSG and 50 games on WPIX, which gets its game rights through MSG’s deal.

“Our position with the Yankees is that we don’t believe replacement baseball is what we negotiated for,” said Martin Brooks, senior VP for programming and production at MSG.

Until then, the two Yankee carriers are planning to show the games and hold their breath, as opposed to swallowing their rights fees and putting on replacement programming.

Sources said that Dave Checketts, upped last week from acting to full-time president of Madison Square Garden, has entered into talks to persuade the Yankees, and their legendary hard-line principal owner, George Steinbrenner, to be more reasonable about their TV contracts.

“We intend to honor our contract,” said WPIX general manager Michael Eigner, adding that the station’s library of movies and sitcoms stands ready if the games turn out to be a disaster.

Several executives are quietly counting their blessings that before baseball’s labor madness descended last year they’d negotiated revenue-sharing deals with their local teams to replace straight rights-fee pacts. Though less than thrilled with the notion of a scab season, they’re rationalizing that there will be ad revenues to divvy up with a team – just a lot fewer of them.

“Our plan is to air the games, whether they’re replacements or whatever is on the field,” said Max Lummis, GM of KPLR in St. Louis. His station last year revamped a rights-fee package that began in 1988 with the Cardinals into a revenue-sharing package, and so far, he said, ad sales are virtually even with last year’s at this time, though he declined to say how much below market rates the station is charging.

In general, the uncertainty of replacement baseball has many programmers muttering off there cord bafflement. Several sneered at the wishful-thinking feedback from some sources, who tried to predict that scab games might become as much fun to watch as the real thing.

“You’ll soon be talking to a replacement general manager here if this keeps up,” said one GM. “It’s making me sick of this job.”

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