DEAD BALL ERA

But not even George is rock-bottom in baseball's world war. The game is now about to be shipped off to the courts and to Capitol Hill--and if that doesn't wring the last ounce of joy from the dying soldier, what will? Ohio's Howard Metzenbaum has retired, but Senators Orrin Hatch, the Republican from Utah, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the Democrat from New York, say they will carry on the effort to finally revoke major-league baseball's antitrust exemption in labor matters. The issue has gone before Congress before, to no avail. But that was before grim lawmakers stuck Yankees caps onto their heads in order to protest salary caps. Before Henry Hyde of Illinois, the new head of the House Judiciary Committee, said he would now change back into Dr. Jekyll: He, too, now opposes the antitrust exemption.

Little matter. The game is a bloody mess. Roger Clemens will some day retake the mound for the Red Sox. Dave Justice will glide back out to right field for the Braves. Andres Galarraga will settle into the batter's box at brand-new Coors Field, that bemused smile on his face once again. But will we give a damn? This most recent stalemate between players and owners suddenly feels as grim and tragic as Verdun--irrational as that seems. Never again will baseball occupy the cherished place in the American imagination that it once held. Never again will we believe. No matter what the loudmouths in Washington proclaim, or how the owners backpedal, or what concessions the players now make, the essential joy of the game is gone.

In this winter of discontent, barely a flicker survives in all the hot-stove league. So be it. Buck up and tune in the smart game. Football.

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