STRIKES, or the threat of them, have added a new measure of suspense to the professional sports scene in the United States. This year, the baseball players' association has set Aug. 6 as ``strike date,'' if no agreement is reached on a new contract with the owners of the 26 major league teams.
The timing is shrewd; it allows for a short strike to force a settlement without jeopardizing the playoffs and World Series.
But fan loyalty could be in jeopardy. For Jane and Joe Fan, who suffered through a 50-day, mid-season baseball strike in 1981, it looks like another ``asterisk'' season. (When a sports event or achievement is a bit irregular, its entry in the record books is so marked.)
Fans of professional football were shortchanged in 1982, when the players' association refused to start the season without a new contract.
Not everyone is perturbed about all this; some say the pro sports seasons are too long, anyhow. But Joe and Jane Fan aren't inclined to think this way; they want their money's worth -- and if you've been to a baseball game lately, you know there is plenty of dough involved. The fans want the batting, pitching, and fielding records of their favorites (the word ``hero'' hardly applies anymore in professional sports) unsullied by an asterisk.
Money -- network television money -- is a basic issue in this, as in most pro sports disputes. The major league teams will share some $180 million a year under new, five-year contracts with the ABC and NBC networks. The players want one-third of that -- about $60,000 a year -- for their pension-and-benefits fund. The club owners say they can't make ends meet without the lion's share of the TV revenue. They would also like to put a ``cap'' on player salaries, which, most everyone knows, are right up there with the defense budget. Not only that -- and this one really has the players with the big statistics upset -- they want to limit the ``free agent'' system, under which some superstars seem to have clocked more mileage between clubs than between playing dates.
It's at times like this that baseball's faithful miss Dizzy Dean -- both his wit and his low salary as a player. Hank Aaron, who broke Babe Ruth's home-run record while playing for the Boston-Milwaukee-Atlanta Braves, made a lot more money than Hall of Fame pitcher Dean, but he has some useful advice for both players and team owners: ``Baseball can't afford another strike. The fans won't stand for it.''
Hank may be overstating it a bit. A strike would no doubt mean some loss in attendance and TV viewership. But dyed-in-the-wool baseball fans mainly have one thing in mind: ``Come on fellas, let's play ball!''
Yeah, fellas, come on!