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LAST CALL

At a time when baseball fans would rather be thinking about rally caps than salary caps, the Sultans of Snit and the robber barons who grudgingly pay them are taking the game from us. This will be the eighth interruption in twenty-two years. If present-day players were as good at stopping ground balls as they are at stopping work, they'd be a lot better off, and the quality of play would be higher.

As for the owners, isn't it amazing that these assorted shipping magnates, car-dealership barons and finely tuned warriors of high finance seem able to make lots of money at everything but baseball? To hear them tell it, the next time the clean-up man hits a homer, they'll have to take out a bank loan to replace the ball. Poor guys--they're down to their last meager billions. Before you know it, Bud Selig will be holding up a hand-lettered sign on a street corner: WILL ALIENATE FANS FOR FOOD.

It's time for drastic measures. Like sitting in on the outfield grass at Camden Yards, then mining it. Torching Marge Schott's dog. What if wild-eyed vigilantes in Philadelphia were to fling Lenny Dykstra's Mercedes onto its roof in the players' parking lot? Forget ticket boycotts--those are child's play. Let's put rats in George Steinbrenner's soup. Or machine-gun the Rockies' offices. Everyone will soon get the idea.

Meanwhile, if Bill Clinton, the self-professed "lifelong baseball fan," really wants to boost his approval ratings, all he has to do is initiate a simple five-point plan to save baseball's season:

1. Declare martial law in the clubhouses.
Confiscate every fishing rod and golf club in sight and, for the duration of the strike, reassign players to community service work--patrolling city parks at night (unarmed, of course), mining coal, tending bedpans, hauling sludge at toxic-waste dumps. Don't want to get your hands dirty, Mr. No-Hit Shortstop? Then spend the coming weeks fielding complaints at the commissioner's office. That's right, pal. You are the new commissioner. A taste of real work will hasten a settlement along, don't you think?

2. Fly the owners to Haiti.
All expenses paid by Uncle Sam. We wouldn't want to strain those tight family budgets, would we? Haiti is where skilled craftspeople used to sew together the major-league baseball for ten cents a day, so the barons of the game should be familiar with this sunny Caribbean playpen. The owners would be greeted on arrival by the Ton Ton Macoutes, a local club that plays the game with knives and automatic weapons. The Macoutes will immediately introduce the visitors to local customs and rituals. But Jerry McMorris's and George Bush Jr.'s stay in Port au Prince won't be entirely a pleasure trip: Haitian military leaders will instruct the visiting Americans in the art of labor negotiation before everyone swims home.

3. Relocate Pittsburgh to St. Petersburg.
All that pissing and moaning and poor-mouthing by the so-called small market clubs will stop in a hurry when, by royal edict, Clinton brokers the deal that sends the ailing Pirates to the city that hosted the Goodwill Games. The same people who filled the Goodwill swimming pool with suspiciously brown water and ladled mush onto the rink at the figure-skating venue will be arranging the transplanted baseball's team's first season of play. As always, spring training will open in February--right there in cool St. Pete. If the former Soviet Union's new market economy still needs more help, the Mariners can be moved to Murmansk, the Padres to Stalingrad. How does "Moscow Mets" sound? If Brett Saberhagen throws liquid bleach onto a reporter in that city, they'll send him to Siberia--commies or no commies. What'll you bet the Reds aren't the most popular visiting club?

4. Hire new players.
Aided by federal subsidies, prospective baggage handlers at Denver International Airport, for instance, would make fine replacement Rockies. It's clear that they want to work, and it is likely they would settle for somewhat less than the $1.2 million average annual salary now being paid to regular major-league players. In Los Angeles, the O.J. Simpson defense team could fill out the Dodgers' and Angels' rosters with some minor-leaguers to spare. If either L.A. club gets to the playoffs or World Series, Judge Ito can call a recess. Everywhere, replacement teams would no doubt play the big-league game with more enthusiasm and appreciation--with more sheer joy--than its current practitioners.

5. Execute two outfielders and an owner on the same day in Arkansas.
Who gets the needle? That doesn't matter. Draw straws or something. The point is, this will divert attention from the Whitewater mess and demonstrate to doubters the president's resolve to fight crime. It will also dramatize that Clinton, for once, means exactly what he says. If he chooses to call himself "a lifelong baseball fan," then he won't shrink from laying a little lethal injection on a few of the game's miscreants--just like a canny knuckleballer will now and then slip his heater by a hitter who's still looking for the butterfly. Besides, the gurney remains warm after last week's thrilling triple-header in Bill's home state, and the doctor hasn't even left the building. But there's no time to waste, and if Barry Bonds's number just happens to come up, so be it.

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