THE ``baseball crisis'' has moved to Washington. Americans may have thought that getting agreement between Serbs and Muslims, Palestinians and Jews, or unionists and republicans in Northern Ireland were tough tasks. But it's clear now that professional baseball owners and players yield to no one in their obstinacy and intractability.
President Clinton went the extra mile when he gathered the disputants at the White House Tuesday evening. He gave the matter hours of his personal attention, calling on Vice President Gore, Labor Secretary Robert Reich, and various of his staff aides to assist him. He got nowhere.
Earlier, the president had set a Monday deadline - Babe Ruth's 100th birthday - for the parties to settle. House Republicans managed to pass their line-item veto bill to honor former President Reagan's birthday, but Clinton's effort to evoke the Sultan of Swat's centennial struck out.
Now, like an exhausted starter handing the ball over to a relief pitcher, the president is saying Congress should finish the game. It need not impose a particular settlement, he says, only require that the parties submit to binding arbitration.
The congressional leadership is reluctant to take the assignment - and rightly so. It may be appropriate for the president to interject himself into this labor-management dispute on behalf of all Americans. There are jobs at stake - not just for millionaire ballplayers, but for thousands of ordinary Americans, right down to owners of mom-and-pop card shops who - without a baseball season - may find little consumer interest in buying baseball cards.
But ``settle the baseball strike'' isn't printed on that laminated copy of the ``Contract With America'' House Speaker Newt Gingrich carries around. Even if Congress spent only a little time on the matter, it would be too much. As Mr. Gingrich and Senate majority leader Bob Dole said in a joint statement, ``Congress is ill-suited to resolving private labor disputes.'' Even White House spokesman Michael McCurry conceded that baseball is not a national crisis, ``not a steel crisis, not a railway crisis.''
Here's a suggestion instead. Make Jimmy Carter, no doubt an avid Atlanta Braves fan, the new baseball commissioner. He may be the only negotiator capable of soothing the massive egos involved. If he can clean up this mess, he deserves the MVP (Most Valuable Peacemaker) award.