Some of Japan's most artful sales reps are invading spring training camps in Florida with the latest samples of their country's electronic ingenuity. Baseball, as we know it, is shaking right down to its athletic socks. The question is, are the men from the Land of the Rising Camera, Tape Recorder, and Television Set about to take over our national pastime too, crowding Abner Doubleday's native disciples off the basepaths as casually as they've bumped Detroit's automobiles off the highway?
Well, it hasn't quite come to that. What we're talking about so far is a modest little novelty -- the computerized catcher's mitt. Punching the appropriate keys on the side of his glove, a catcher can order up a slow curve from his pitcher, whose standard equipment will include a receiver under his cap.
If the manager is a take-charge guy who wants his own finger on the computer, there's no reason why he can't sit on his bench and whack the old Apple (or whatever), sending signals directly to his wired-and-waiting team. Nor can any of those signals be stolen by the cleverest of enemy coaches, looking in vain for the old rigamarole of hand to belt, to cap, to belt again, with a feint in the direction of the right knee.
Progress? Fine. Our only concern is, will baseball get too sophisticated for its own good? With this apprehension in mind, we have imagined the following scenarios for the years ahead.
Spring, 1983. The Japanese introduce a gadget on the pitcher's glove that loads up a baseball seam with a swarm of ions. The awesome result is the electronic spitter. Gaylord Perry comes out of retirement again to pitch back-to-back no-hitters.
Spring, 1984. Umpires are automated out of their jobs by a robot dressed in blue, featuring a seeing-eye beam. Captain Cyclops, as he is dubbed by the players, passes the crucial test -- keeping his cool after Billy Martin kicks dirt on his pedestal.
Spring, 1985. As baseball begins to resemble the space program, fat salaries get even fatter, with the players adding to good-field, good-hit the credentials of computer engineers. In an attempt to close the widening social gap between the millionaire ballplayer and the ordinary fan, club owners obligingly raise the price of bleacher tickets to $15. Quiche stands are set up to replace the plebeian hot dog. Commercials seek to lure fans to the ballpark by substituting new lyrics in ''Take Me Out to the Ballgame.'' A sample revision: ''Buy me some caviar and chocolate mousse,/ I don't care if I never cut loose.''
Spring, 1986. In an effort to control the runaway baseball economy, the Japanese introduce a computer nicknamed the Ultimate Arbiter to adjudicate salary disputes. ''Rabbit'' O'Hare, a utility infielder for the latest expansion team, the Terre Haute Terrapins, asks for a $500,000 raise, bringing him to an annual salary of $4 million. When the Ultimate Arbiter turns him down, every baseball player in North America goes on strike.
Spring, 1987. The strike is settled a year later, just in time for opening day. Only 792 fans, on the average, show up at each park. It doesn't matter. By now, every club in baseball has signed a multibillion dollar contract with one cable network or another.
Spring, 1988. The same engineers who perfected the computer catcher's mitt in 1982, the computer umpire in 1984, and, incidentally, the computer manager in 1986, have perfected the robot player. On camera the mechanical rookies cannot be distinguished from the ''real thing.'' They all field and hit like George Brett, spit authentically, and yell ''Atta baby!'' at prescribed intervals. For ten games, nobody notices the difference.
When the news comes out, most people approve. The pitchers never stall. The batters never protest a third strike. The post-game interviews are flawlessly grammatical. Every robot is carefully individualized, and the sale of bubble-gum cards actually soars. In the stands robot fans are wizards at catching foul balls, and never disorderly, though they are programmed to cheer and boo in moderation.
Without the nuisance of the human element, baseball attains an efficiency it never came close to before. Of course, the kids of 1989 no longer play baseball. But there are several marvelously realistic home-video baseball games. One actually gives off a simulated leather smell and reproduces, with the highest fidelity, the memory of the crack of a ball from a bat. Under the circumstances of 1990, could anybody ask for more?