THE BLISS OF THE GAME

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It used to be a grand game, once.

Baseball, I mean.

They play the All-Star game tomorrow night at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh but today something even more important happens. The leaders of the players' union meet to talk strike.

If it comes, it could be long and brutal, with a lockout by the owners and no attempt as in the past to play ersatz games using minor leaguers or amateurs. A midsummer baseball strike could wash out the remainder of the season and cancel the playoffs and World Series.

Striking around Labor Day makes sense for the ballplayers. They will have earned about 85% of their money by then. And the owners, who make much of theirs during the playoffs and Series, would be neatly skewered.

A few years back the possibility of no more baseball would have just killed me. Now, to quote that eminent Southern Leaguer, Rhett Butler, "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn."

Well, there are a few caveats.

Losing the rest of the '94 season would be a shame and unfair to Cleveland where they have a new ballyard and, finally, a good team. For Cleveland's sake alone, a strike would be cruel. I would like to see Griffey Junior make a real run at Maris. Can O'Neill hit .400? Can Gwynn? You'd like to see them given the chance. Can Key win 20 and lose only two? Atlanta may be the best team in baseball and with Toronto struggling, perhaps the Braves could win the whole deal, tomahawks and all. The Yankees and Reds, whose owners are probably the most primitive in sport, are playing wonderful baseball and, regardless of ownership, deserve a shot.

Do I care about most of the rest of them? The prospect that thanks to this idiotic new divisional system that Texas, playing .465 ball, or the Dodgers, around .500, will get into postseason play? Do I care whether Franco, on blowing yet another save opportunity, breaks up another locker room with his tantrums? Or the Jordan follies?

No. I do care about the death of Marvelous Marv Throneberry at age 60. Too soon, Marv, oh much too soon. And I tip my hat to the noble Ryne Sandberg, who walked away from 21/2 more contractual years because he can no longer play at a Ryne-like level. And I love Mattingly, the greatest Yankee since "Gator."

The others? You can stuff them.

It used to be such a wonderful and simple game. You needed sacks as bases and some gloves, a couple of bats, a few balls, and a backstop helped. Maybe an honest ump. Now it's all so high tech and phony. Batting helmets and gloves the size of lacrosse baskets and wraparound shades and batting gloves. And sliding gloves. And for God's sake, soon there'll be gloves for running. Coordinated with the wristbands, of course. And aluminum bats. They're coming, oh, they're coming! And a souped-up ball? Boggs, in the name of the sainted Tom Yawkey, has already hit nine homers this season!

It used to be a nine-man game. Nine on each side. Now they play 10 in one league, nine in the other. And no child under 16 will ever see the ninth inning of a World Series game because they all end after midnight. Once upon a time you had the occasional fist fight on the field. Now every time someone pitches inside, and a batter thinks he's been dissed, he has to charge the mound or lose his rep for machismo. I think it would be great the next time one of these muffins charges the mound if the other 24 guys in the dugout examine their fingernails and whistle a tune and let a real fist fight happen instead of a kindergarten recess pile-on.

Maybe the money's to blame.

A utility infielder makes a million a year and hits .205 and sulks and five-million-dollar-a-year superstars hitting .270 preen and posture and orate in the third person. Or refuse entirely to talk to the press. And the millions are never enough and off they go to the card shows and sell their autographs and sell their names and sell themselves, and their sport, short.

How can you hold any brief for the owners? They've dumped commissioner after commissioner and now there is no commish, not even a joke commissioner like Ueberroth, and they've taken the most symmetrical of games and carved it up into divisions and instituted layers of playoffs and diluted the talent and overpaid the players and hiked the ticket prices and let the thugs and drunks wrest control of vast reaches of seats in a lot of stadiums, too cheap to hire security, too gutless to have the bums thrown out.

And they talk about the best interest of the game.

But never had the sense to maintain some sort of sanity in wages. Or restrain their own greed when it came to the next network television contract. Or insist the game be played on grass and in daylight.

Oh, there's plenty wrong with all the professional and much of college sport (and Texas high school football), but baseball was once so wonderful. You don't have to be a professionally eloquent George Will to evoke the splendors of the game as it was and as it was meant always to be. And no longer is.

No more doubleheaders? Until recent years you couldn't have a Fourth of July without two games in the afternoon. Labor Day wasn't official unless you played a couple. Remember when Ernie Banks wasn't happy when they told him they were only playing one.

Nolan Ryan is finished and Ted Williams had a stroke and Mantle's fresh out of rehab and in California the Giants have hired Strawberry, a man so erratic they have four grownups supervising his comeback, one for the baseball, one for the drugs, one for the image, and I guess one to hand him his batting gloves. And Gooden is back on the junk and Saberhagen throws bleach at the beat writers and lies about it and Ryan Thompson slaps away Bonilla's restraining hand and we catch it on television and little kids watch and another hitter charges the mound.

The hell with baseball.

Only in movies do ballplayers come out of cornfields to play for the sheer bliss of the game.

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