Why a baseball con game?

We all laughed last spring when the Houston Rockets reached the NBA finals and made a serious bid to claim the title of "world champions" even thought they had lost more games than they won in the regular season.

Things were equally silly in the NHL, where seven teams with losing records qualified for the Stanley Cup playoffs.

But these absurdities occured in pro basketball and hockey -- one a sport that has always had a "bush league" image and the other an overgrown, overexpanded, talent-diluted caricature of its former self.

Surely our tradition-steeped "national pastime" would never stoop so low just to con a few more fans into coming out to the ballpark. At least that's what we thought until this year.

Baseball's credibility, after all, was built on the premise that if offered a truly major league product. Unlike basketball and hockey, where hardly anyone cares until the playoffs, where hardly anyone cares until the playoffs, people followed baseball all summer because they knew regular-season games really meant something. A baseball team had to prove itself best over the long haul to be eligible for championship competition, with no inflated playoffs or other gimmicks designed to keep fan interest alive by giving undeserving clubs a chance for fluke titles.

As a matter of fact, if you go by the game's officials jargon, they didn't really have "play-off series" in baseball. The owners didn't like that word, so ever since the divisional setup began in 1969, the annual battles for the pennants have been known officially as the league championship series -- and you will never hear them referred to as anything else in official baseball circles.

But a couple of months ago the owners saw an opportunity to recoup some of their strike-induced losses, and we quickly learned just where fairness, credibility, and even their own PR image stand when they are stacked up against the old dollar sign. First they adopted the minor league tactic of dividing the season in two, then they devised a half-baked playoff system with potentially disastrous consequences. When this was pointed out to them, they simply switched to an equally ill-conceived alternative format.

And so it is that the Cincinnati Reds, who had the best record in baseball, failed to make the playoffs -- something that could not occur in any reasonable system. Also victimized were the St. Louis Cardinals, who had the best record in the NL East but still find themselves on the outside looking in while Philadelphia and Montreal play for the division title. And to a lesser extent there are Baltimore, Texas, and the Chicago White Sox, all of which finished with better records than one of the teams making the playoffs in their divisions.

The principal beneficiary has been Kansas City. The Royals were buried in the second division when the strike interrupted play, and although they improved in the second half, their overall record of 49-53 would put them fourt, 11 1/2 games behind the leader, in the American League West. Now if somebody doesn't apply the brakes, as the Boston Celtics finally did to the Rockets last spring, baseball could suffer the supreme indignity that basketball escaped and be forced to hail a losing team as its "world champion."

Oakland has the first shot, and fortunately for those who care about the credibility of the game, the A's appear on the verge of eliminating this potentially embarrassing situation after winning the first two games of their best-of-five series. But no matter what happens in this and the other division playoffs, it will be difficult to think of any eventual champion as truly legitimate in view of Cincinnati's absence. And a furiuos John McNamara, the Red's manager, was understandably anxious to make sure everyone recognized this fact.

"To get cheated out of [the playoffs] by somebody's lame-brain idea is ridiculous," McNamara said when his team lost out. Then in an apparent reference to Commissioner Bowie Kuhn he added: "I hope this thing goes on 'til Halloween so he can wear a mask . . .for the final game of the World Series."

That could happen, too. As things stand now, a seven-game World Series would conclude on Oct. 28 -- so all it would take would be three rainouts, "snowouts," or "freezeouts," to push it backs to the 31st. Considering that among the potential sites are Philadelphia, New York, milwaukee, and Montreal, that possibility doesn't seem too farfetched.

A strange aspect of the whole fiasco is that three of the eight managers didn't even take over their teams until August or September. Baseball owners have always been noted for their "what have you done for me lately" philosophy, but this year some of them got even more impetuous than usual.

One winner of this summer's "musical chairs" game was Bob Lemon, who replaced Gene Michael when the latter made an unfortunate midseason trip to George Steinbrenner's doghouse and suddenly found himself going the wrong way in the Yankee owner's revolving door. Of course this is old hat to Lemon, who traveled the opposite route a couple of years ago when he led the Bronx Bombers to the 1978 world championship only to be sacked the next year himself.

It was a touch blow, though, for Michael, who had seemed assured on a shot at playoff glory after getting the team there by leading it to the AL East first-half title. But when you work for Steinbrenner, nothing is ever assured -- as plenty of others have learned.

In Montreal the new ma is Jim Fanning, who stepped in from the front office after Dick Williams was let go in September with the Expos just 1 1/2 games out. On the surface this seemed a strange move -- firing a manager with a proven winning record right in the heat of the stretch drive -- but management apparently felt Dick was losing touch with his players.

Finally there is the turnabout in Kansas City, where Jim Frey, who beat New York in the 1980 playoffs, was replaced this summer by Dick Howser, who managed the Yankee team that the Royals defeated a year ago.

One irony this year is that if the Yankees win their first-round playoff they must face a team led by one of their own ex-managers: either Billy Martin's A's or Howser's Royals.

Martin, incidentally, is by far the most experienced of all this year's pilots in terms of postseason competition. He played in five World Series for the Yankee in the 50's, managed division winners in minnesota and Detroit, led the Yankees to two pennants and one world title, and now brings an unprecedented fourth different team into playoff action.

Lemon pitched in two World Series for Cleveland and managed the 1975 Yankees in both the playoffs and the Series. Tom Lasorda (Los Angeles) piloted the Dodgers through the NL playoffs and the Series in 1977 and '78. And Bill Virdon played for Pittsburgh's 1960 world champoins, managed the Pirates in the 1972 NL playoffs, and has brought Houston into postseason play two years in a row.

It's the third postseason series for Dallas Green, who won it all in his first try last year by guiding Philadelphia to victory in both the NL playoffs and the World Series. It's No. 2 for Howser, and it's the playoff debut for both Buck Rodgers of Milwaukee and Fanning.

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