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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.

Naturally, the president is unlikely to heed our advice. And we are unlikely to see the World Series this year. The antagonism between players and owners, rubbed raw last week by the owners' refusal to pay their regular $8 million installment into the pension fund on August 1, has grown so deep that both sides are likely to take their balls and go home. By limousine, of course.

While the nabobs and the brats weren't paying attention, though, fan protest groups have sprung up in Cleveland and New York (which both have top-drawer teams this season) and in Fort Lauderdale, close to Miami. Others are on the horizon.

Perhaps more significant, baseball's faithful are mad as hell in the boondocks, too--Utica, New York, and Shawnee, Kansas, are just two of the towns making noise. The Utica group is aptly named and has come up with an appropriate, if mild, tactic: "Screw Baseball" is asking fans to send an ordinary metal screw to the commissioner's office (is anybody home?) in an envelope.

But is there anything really new under the sun? Probably not. The long, unhappy, fan-scorning history of baseball's work stoppages is like the history of war: Those who live don't learn. Witness the comments of one A. G. Mills, a former president of the National League:

"It has been popular in days gone by to ascribe the decay and disrepute into which the game has fallen to degeneracy on the part of the players, and to blame them primarily for revolving and other misconduct. Nothing could be more unjust. I have been identified with the game for more than twenty-five years--for several seasons as a player--and I know that, with rare exceptions, those faults were directly traceable to those who controlled the clubs."

Does it matter that A. G. Mills made these observations in 1888--seven years before the Bambino was born and 106 years before three sluggers were deprived of the chance to make history? Probably not. Many of us are now compelled to ask, with sadness and regret, the awful question: What day does football season open?


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