WHEN Sparky Anderson doesn't have the heart to coach replacement players in spring training, people know major-league baseball is in even deeper trouble than they thought. Anderson, like the Dodgers' Tommy Lasorda, is a guy whose whole being is wrapped up in the game
As spring training opened joylessly in Florida last week, Anderson quickly departed. One look at the players auditioning as stand-ins for the striking major-leaguers prompted his exit. ``I vowed to myself long ago that when I leave this game, I will leave it with my head held high,'' said Anderson, who is only 26 wins shy of being No. 3 on the all-time-wins list. Coaching a ragtag group of Walter Mittys presumably isn't Sparky's idea of professional baseball. The Tigers gave him an indefinite leave of absence.
Many equate what is happening in Florida and Arizona to a perpetual fantasy camp, in which adults pay for the privilege of learning baseball from retired major-leaguers. In this case, though, the wannabes aspire to play in big-league ballparks and earn a minimum salary of $115,000.
All the owners' troubles might be over if they could put top-of-the-line or even middle-level minor leaguers on the field. That, however, seems unlikely.
Randy Mobley, president of the International League, a minor circuit based in Ohio, says the striking players contend that nobody normally on a team's 40-man spring training roster should be in camp. Twenty-five players make active major-league rosters; 15 are assigned to the minors.
Mobley says a number of promising minor-league prospects ``have not played a day in major- league baseball or ever paid a dime to the union,'' but that doesn't make them eager to break the strike. The owners aren't pressing the issue. Forcing minor-leaguers to side with one of the disputing parties could turn ugly for the players and disrupt an organization's future.
By offering cut-rate tickets (see boxed story, right) if the strike continues, many major-league clubs have acknowledged that they may field inferior teams. Some teams are willing to release season-ticket holders from their obligations if they are not satisfied with the product. The Dodgers, for example, are allowing fans a full refund, including refunds for games already played, if the first home game is a turn-off.
Several clubs have made plans for gradual ticket-price increases if and when regular major-league players join replacements. The Texas Rangers have devised perhaps the most involved formula for resetting ticket prices. It takes into account the total level of player compensation, so that the team is protected from losing money if the payroll takes a leap.
According to his press secretary, President Clinton won't throw out the first pitch on opening day if replacement teams take the field. The Oval Office is clearly disgusted with baseball's labor logjam, which has shown little sign of progress since Clinton's recent intervention. At this rate, the best candidates for the April 2 ceremonies might be air-traffic controllers - the ones working, not the ones who walked during the Reagan presidency.
@HEADBRIEF = Touching other bases
* President Clinton probably shouldn't have promised that he and golfing partners George Bush and Gerald Ford wouldn't go ``too far right or too far left'' during a round at last week's Bob Hope Classic in Indian Wells, Calif. The three sprayed quite a few shots, but they also demonstrated that golf is one of the best sports ever invented in for bringing people together. So who completed the presidential foursome and enjoyed the thrill of a lifetime? Scott Hoch, the tournament's defending champion, who wound up in a nine-way tie for 54th, far behind new champion Kenny Perry on Sunday.
* Speed-skater Bonnie Blair is truly going out in a blaze of glory. On Sunday she made her last turns on American ice good ones, winning the world sprint championship in Milwaukee. The most successful American woman Olympian ever set a world record in the 500 meters earlier this month. She will retire at the end of this season.
* Atlanta's Olympic organizers have announced plans for the biggest torch relay in history. They will enlist 10,000 runners in transporting the Olympic flame on its 84-day journey from Los Angeles to the main stadium for the July 19, 1996, opening ceremony. The planners want this to be a richly symbolic trek, which is why Los Angeles, site of the 1932 and 1984 Games, will be the starting point. The full itinerary won't be known for months, but the idea is to pass within two hours of 90 percent of the United States population. As a result, the relay is expected to cover 15,000 miles.