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Game's Up

Another major-league strike, and baseball could be out -- for good.

In the tumult of an ugly and tragic year, the realm of public villainy has expanded to accommodate Arab terrorists with a lust for mass destruction, Catholic priests with a taste for little boys, and wealthy corporate swindlers with their manicured mitts in your bank account. There's no end in sight. By the time we poor citizens drag all our legitimate grievances, great and small, to the table, we'll have no energy left to sing praise -- should that ever become appropriate again.

Given the growing burden of our hatreds and discomforts, it's hard to get worked up about the prospect of another baseball strike. With Osama bin Laden and Arthur Andersen already topping the social hit list, nobody in his right mind is going to give a damn if Larry Walker takes his bat and goes home come mid-September, or if Curt Schilling declines to throw his fastball in October. Baseball is an entertaining and pleasant diversion, but we have other, more crucial matters on our minds these days. Neither the sudden disappearance of the New York Yankees nor another cancellation of the World Series would likely stir many ripples in the public consciousness this year: The average fan's dwindling 401K is a lot more important to him right now than Randy Johnson's 220 K's. The game can die and go to hell, for all most people care.

If the lords of baseball -- the ones wearing suits and the ones in striped pajamas -- fail to see and heed our indifference, then the ballgame really will be all over for them. It's becoming ever clearer that the United States (and a couple of second-division cities in Canada) can get along nicely without major-league baseball, thank you -- without the game's preening celebrities, six-dollar hot dogs and chemically inflated scoring binges. People struggling to feed their families, struggling to deal with the ongoing national trauma, simply don't care very much about Roger Clemens's groin injury, Barry Bonds's batting average or the fiscal embarrassments of the Montreal Expos.

Mike Hampton is unhappy about the terrible season he's having? Too bad. He's not as unhappy as those civilian casualties in Afghanistan, or the thousands of loyal employees screwed by the crooks at Enron. Baseball is a distinctly second-class passion at the moment -- and not just because we have other problems. The real question is this: Why should we continue to care about a game for which the players and team owners have such evident contempt?

Baseball purists (whoever they are) will tell you that the game must be preserved at any cost -- that its values as a binding national ritual and an individual comfort are more important than ever in these radically changing times. Well, try telling that to the owners, the players' union or baseball commissioner Bud Selig -- the fellow who decided it was okay to call this year's All-Star Game a 7-7 tie. Haven't you heard, Bud? There are no ties in baseball. By all accounts, there has also been precious little effort to construct a new collective-bargaining agreement. Meeting sporadically in New York, the sides are close to agreement on minor points like minimum salaries and benefits, but they evidently remain far apart on make-or-break issues like revenue sharing, a luxury tax and baseball's determination to ax two unsuccessful teams through "contraction." Players' union head Donald Fehr has completed his meetings with major-league team reps, and the union is likely to set a strike date this week. As far as anyone can tell, there has been no significant movement toward a settlement.

In the past -- and baseball is nothing if not an exercise in nostalgia -- it was easy to sympathize with the players in their disputes with ownership. Once upon a time, the players were indentured servants whose free will had been taken from them. Today, they are multi-millionaires who work six months a year, and in many cases they aren't very good at their jobs. Consider the aforementioned Hampton, whose eight-year, $121 million contract renders him virtually untradeable no matter how badly the Rockies would like to get rid of him. This season, the touchy left-hander's record is 5-13, with an awful 6.78 earned-run average, and he's blown more leads than a drunken real estate salesman. This is no time to take up for the owners -- mostly arrogant, mule-headed authoritarians whose baseball hobby has gotten more expensive than they ever imagined -- but it's increasingly difficult to side with the players, too. I'll bet if you took an informal survey at Coors Field or any other major-league park, the weary fans would wish a plague on both houses, the billionaires and the mere millionaires, should they once more choose to stop the game cold.

In the past, baseball fans, despite their urge to kill the ump and their penchant for booing the inept superstar, have always been essentially decent, forgiving people given to astonishing bouts of amnesia. When the 1994 season was ruined by a strike and the World Series was canceled, hundreds of thousands of fans swore they were finished with the game, that they would never buy another ticket or another box of Cracker Jack. But most of them were soon lured back to the expensive seats by the home-run antics of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, and by their own affection for baseball itself. Should the players walk out again (or be locked out by the owners), we're bound to hear the same kind of angry resolve. Never again! To hell with you! Take your game and shove it! This time, though, the resentment may run deeper, aggravated by society's woes -- and the faithful may be less inclined to forgive.

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