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PICKING AT SOME SCABS

Bring your pets inside and hide the children in the cellar. The Thing That Cannot Play is about to be set loose.

You know the one. The many-footed monster that has prowled the swamps of Florida and the deserts of Arizona since mid-February. The scourge that put Sparky Anderson to flight from the Detroit dugout and earned Davey Johnson a dark little corner in Marge Schott's doghouse. It's The Beast That Ate Baltimore. And fought poor old Pedro Borbon for the last pork chop on the platter. And put Willie Mays's hallowed number 24 on the back of a small-appliance salesman.

A versatile brute is The Thing That Cannot Play. It has likely driven the estimable Paul Molitor, age 38, from the sport he loves and plays so well. It has probably trashed Cal Ripken Jr.'s astonishing pursuit of Lou Gehrig's record for consecutive games. It has trampled a century of proud history. It has angered millions of fair-thinking Americans, as well as some neighborly folk in Montreal and Toronto. It has crushed a piece of our hearts.

In fact, about the only thing The Thing hasn't done is glove a routine ground ball and throw the runner out at first. It might even have trouble beating Team USA (aka St. John's University), which recently underscored the current spirit of American baseball by going 0-for-6 at the Pan Am Games.

Despite its shortcomings, The Thing That Cannot Play will lumber next week into a ballpark near you--all thumbs and stumbles and bad manners. As fate has it, this impostor will be the first occupant of lovely old-new Coors Field. What's worse, even Rockies owner Jerry "Sunshine" McMorris now acknowledges that The Thing might hang around all year, with its elbows on the table and its fraudulent butt stuffed into Ellis Burks's pinstripes.

If that still doesn't bring you to tears, or rage, it should.
On the other hand, maybe this whole mess is just a bad dream. Maybe there's never been a baseball strike, the owners aren't pigs and the players aren't spoiled brats. Maybe we will all awaken in the morning and, like Candide, discover that "all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds."

Don't count on it. But just in case, here are half a dozen ideals (each arguable, of course) that daydreamers might use to color baseball's new dawn:

1. Colorado Rockies face Havana Cigars in World Series.
Mossbacked old-towners and self-proclaimed purists are always carping that interleague play during the regular season would compromise the excitement of the Fall Classic and that expansion baseball dilutes major-league quality. Come on. Wouldn't you like a look at Seattle's splendid Ken Griffey Jr. a couple of times each season? Don't White Sox fans deserve a touch of Greg Maddux? And before we old hands here in Denver start ridiculing new kids St. Pete and Phoenix, let's remember that the game itself is large. The game speaks many tongues. And every club gets its chance to grow up. Meanwhile, if franchises like Milwaukee and Pittsburgh fail, so what? Maybe they deserve to fail. Bring on the Indianapolis 500s and the Caracas Carambas. It will be good for baseball the day Mexico City battles the new and improved Washington Senators in the playoffs. How about when the Tokyo Suns beat the New York Yankees in late October? As for that upcoming Rox-Cigars Series, ask Fidel to throw out the first pitch. It will probably do wonders for the world.

2. The Commissioner will see you now.
And make no mistake about it, friend. General Powell is angry this morning. Since the zillionaire owners ran Fay Vincent off four years ago, major-league baseball has been a foundering ship. Why not draft a proven leader like Colin Powell, a guy who takes no guff and clearly applies his intelligence to every task at hand? Offered the commish job, he'd soon forget trifles like the vice-presidency. See someone like Powell as an "outsider" to the game? How long do you think it would take him to learn every stitch on the ball? If the general's not available, call up Tom Seaver. That Hall of Famer is one of the brightest men ever to play the game, and one of the fairest. If Tom Terrific says no, how about Bill Bradley? That's right. The ex-basketball player and able U.S. senator. You get the idea. The game needs someone smart and forceful. Maybe even someone nontraditional. Someone who's not Bud "Lite" Selig.

3. Let's Play Two.
Candide probably never watched a languorous double-header on a Sunday afternoon at Fenway Park or Ebbets Field. In the best of all possible worlds, weekend doubleheaders will be scheduled again. But first, baseball would do well to pop the tops on those awful, antihuman domes in Seattle and Houston and Toronto, then roll up all the green plastic rugs in captivity and stow them in grandma's attic. As the faithful say of baseball on the North Side of Chicago: It's God's own game, played on God's own grass, under God's own lights. The World Series, by the way, will no longer be contested at midnight, but in the daytime--so that working people can renew the old ritual of sneaking away from the office for a few deliciously guilty innings in the dark of the corner bar and schoolchildren can once more conceal their earphone-connected heads ("It's going, going...gone!") within the flaps of their social-studies books. TV networks execs will learn to live with it.

4. Now batting...
For years, baseball's great rules bugaboo has been the Designated Hitter--an innovation sanctioned by the American League, verboten in the Senior Circuit. Proponents argue that the DH helps put more runs on the board and prolongs the careers of beloved old sluggers now too slow to play the field. Opponents say the DH corrupts strategy with regard to relief pitchers and pinch hitters. Never the twain shall meet, unless there's a compromise. To wit: Under our new two-league DH proposal, a manager could insert his Designated Hitter anywhere in his lineup--but only after the seventh inning begins. That way, the new man becomes something more than a late-inning pinch hitter because he'll probably come to the plate more than once, but the pressure to produce will increase because he has fewer at-bats than under the current rule. For fans, the drama of tight games could be heightened.

5. One Fan. One Vote. All She Wrote.
As Andres Galarraga can tell you, major-league baseball's annual All-Star Game, which could be the best such event in sports, has become a sham in recent years. That's because highly organized fans in some cities stuff the ballot boxes for their hometown heroes, without regard to performance. Or they vote for familiar faces. When Joe Blow of the last-place Smurfs, hitting a mighty .178 this season, suddenly shows up as the starting All-Star left-fielder and four of his ragtag teammates are out there with him, people either laugh or change the channel. The remedy for fraud at the polls? Take the vote away from fans and give it to the players, the guys who really know what's going on. But before baseball's already beleaguered constituency gets its nose out of joint, here's the beauty part: Let the fans decide who gets into the Hall of Fame. It's a prestige job they can do just as well as baseball journalists, who've been doing it badly for years. As long as a few election-day controls apply, the fans can probably banish the old prejudices and ego trips that have characterized the process for years. As for the writers, they'll live.

6. Strawberry's Deal Forever.
We are referring here, of course, to ex-New York Met, ex-Los Angeles Dodger, ex-San Francisco Giant Darryl Strawberry, the tall, lean, powerful outfielder once considered so promising that they'd one day have to build a whole new wing for him up in Cooperstown. Instead, Strawberry has spent eleven seasons underachieving, whining, snitching on his teammates and emptying out the pharmacies of every town that would have him. One more thing. While Strawberry was still a Met, in 1988, his club played the Los Angeles Dodgers for the National League pennant. But before the series even started, Strawberry announced that he'd really prefer to be playing for the other team.

Today he is playing for no team. Following his umpteenth drug offense, the Giants got sick of the Straw man and cut him loose. He's finished, and no one's crying about it. In the best of all possible baseball worlds, squanderers and miscreants like Darryl Strawberry will get into the ballpark only if they've got a tray of hot dogs for sale.

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