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ONE MORE STRIKE AND YOU'RE OUT

If the beach volleyball season gets wiped out, you won't hear a peep out of me. If the monster-truck drivers decide to walk, so be it. Even if ice dancing melts down tomorrow morning, the pro bowlers pack up ball, bag and shoes at noon, and they cancel the rest of the Tour de France by nightfall, most people will say: So what? In fact, they can scrap Thanksgiving, the NBA playoffs and the Super Bowl, and a lot of good, red-blooded Americans won't give a hoot.

But when owners and players start messing with the national pastime again, it's time to dump the tea in the harbor. To fight back with knives. It's time to send a well-armed regiment or two over to George Steinbrenner's house. And drop by Rocky Flats to steal some plutonium and build an A-bomb.

By the All-Star break last week, 1994 had developed into one of the most fascinating baseball seasons of all time, and now it's about to be obliterated because one group of multimillionaires wearing spikes cannot get along with another group of multimillionaires wearing suits. The ticket-buying, Cracker Jack-munching public can drop dead, can't they? They're only baseball fans, after all.

But before all this beauty and drama goes away--on August 16 or September 30 or whatever date the players choose to get their golf clubs out--consider what is being taken from us:

No fewer than three players are chasing Roger Maris's record of 61 home runs in a season. Juiced ball or no juiced ball, the fact that the Giants' Matt Williams and the Mariners' Ken Griffey Jr. each had stroked 33 homers by the 10th of July is extraordinary. Frank Thomas of the Chicago White Sox, a sequoia disguised as a first baseman, had 32. History favors Thomas and Williams in the Maris chase, because traditionally they have picked up their home-run totals in the second half of the season, while Griffey has suffered a couple of power outages. But we may never see this historic assault on history.

The Big Hurt can win the Triple Crown. Only fourteen players have led their leagues in the three major offensive categories--batting average, home runs and runs batted in. The last man to do it was Boston's Carl Yastrzemski, way back in 1967. At the break this year, the aforementioned Mr. Thomas of that Toddlin' Town stood second in American league home runs (32), first in batting average (.383) and tied for third in RBI (78). By the way, the last Triple Crown winner in the National League was Joe Medwick--in 1937.

Greg Maddux can win his third Cy Young Award. At age 28, the brilliant Atlanta Braves right-hander already has won 100 games and seems destined for a plaque at Cooperstown. This year, he leads what is considered the game's best pitching staff with an 11-5 record and a sparkling 1.80 earned run average. But in this extraordinary season, neither those feats, nor the Braves' 52-33 mark at the break, were good enough to top the heap. Montreal's Ken Hill was 13-3 last week, and his Expos led the Braves in the new National League East by one game. Alas, it's a division race likely to end not with a bang, but a whimper.

Cleveland is in first place. That's right. Do not adjust your set. For the first time since the Eisenhower administration, the Indians went into the All-Star break leading the AL pack--with a 51-33 record. Their moody slugger Albert Belle was hitting .357 with 25 home runs, and swift Kenny Lofton stood near the top of the league in half a dozen categories--batting average (.378), stolen bases (45), runs (82), hits (129), triples (7) and total bases (197). The Tribe, which has not won a World Series since the Feller-Boudreau-Lemon days of 1948 (or played in one since 1954) is christening a brand-new ballpark before enthusiastic throngs. This is also the club that lost two pitchers last year in a fatal boating accident. How will Indians fans feel if the 1994 season suddenly goes up in smoke?

The Colorado Rockies are in second place. Okay, okay. So that realignment charade kicked the powerful Braves over into the NL East, and Cincinnati and Houston wound up in the newborn Central. So what? Behind the bats of Dante Bichette and Andres Galarraga, the scrappy Rox were 42-48 at the break, two and a half games better than last year's hotshot San Francisco Giants and just five behind Tommy Lasorda's Dodgers. Does hope spring eternal on the plains? You bet. The Rockies may not have many true major-league arms on their staff, but that Dodgers relief pitching is pretty shaky, too, and a National League West dogfight could be in the making. If the season continues.

Toronto and Philadelphia are cooked--a combined 26 games out of first place. Well, yes, you're right. Those are the two clubs that played in last year's World Series. But in this surreal, topsy-turvy season, the one-shot Phils have been plagued by injuries to starting pitchers, catcher Darren Daulton and spark plug Lenny Dykstra, and the Blue Jays, after winning consecutive world titles in 1992 and 1993, have swooned due to fatigue or ennui. At the break the Jays were in last place, 12 1/2 games behind the resurgent Yankees, and Philadelphia crouched one rung out of the NL East cellar, half a game ahead of the hapless and mapless New York Mets (who probably prefer a strike to the strikeouts their batting order has been ringing up). Of course, the Phils do have the ageless screwballer, Fernando Valenzuela, on the mound this season. And if you don't like watching him pitch, you're not a ball fan. By the time the strike ends, he'll be able to tell his grandchildren about it.

Darrrr-elllll is at Candlestick. Love him or hate him, the former Mets and Dodgers slugger still keeps fans glued to their seats every time he steps into the batter's box. Back from rehab and trying to salvage a largely wasted talent, he spent just three days retraining in overheated, Triple A Phoenix before joining the big club. But it remains to be seen if the windy reaches of the Stick can be Strawberry's field forever. Care to take in this spectacle for the rest of the year? Who wouldn't? How long will it be before the Straw and Barry Bonds bust up the clubhouse? I've got the under at 16 games.

Cal Ripken is catching the Iron Horse. You can bet the Orioles' sturdy, steady shortstop stays away from can openers, surfboards and icy driveways. But he never strays from the ballpark. If Cal, now 33 and in his fourteenth year, can remain healthy enough to play in 148 more straight games, he will break one of baseball's most hallowed records--the 2,130 consecutive appearances by Yankee great Lou Gehrig. Ripken's feat would be greater. He plays shortstop, a far more active, injury-prone position than Gehrig's first base. Who's third in this category? American Leaguer Everett Scott, who strung together 1,307 games back in the teens. Let's hope Cal's knees don't calcify while the owners fiddle.

I could go on, of course. Deion Sanders now plays center for the Reds, Doc Gooden's on a sixty-day drug suspension, and the Texas Rangers threaten to win their first division title ever--with a losing record. Jeff Bagwell, the unknown from Houston, actually leads all National League hitters in most categories, and our own Big Cat still has an outside shot at his second straight batting crown. At the break he was hitting .316, just below the National League's top ten.

Despite all the delightful extremities and one-of-a-kind dramas of 1994, however, the thing most baseball fans will miss when the strike finally comes is what we yearn for so keenly in December and in February. It's the steady rise and fall of the game through the long season, its rhythmic breathing, its heartbeat. If the Big Hurt weren't to make it this year, if the long-suffering Indians collapsed and the Rockies faded to black, a complete season would be no failure, for it would continue to give baseball fans what they cherish most--the simple, irreplaceable nourishment of the game itself. Without that, we have nothing.

Meanwhile, that commando mission out to Rocky Flats gets under way at 2300 hours the day after the magic stops. Wanna go?


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