Baseball, Gone and Practically Forgotten, Enters Winter of Major-League Discontent

ALL across the United States this week millions of baseball fans are mourning the World Series that never was. Disconsolate, they flick from channel to channel on cable, pausing briefly to watch Australian rules football on ESPN, hoping against hope that through magic, or some strange magnetic phenomena, the seventh game of the Fall Classic will suddenly appear on their screens - the Yankees against the Braves, tied 2-2 going into the ninth.

Or maybe not. Maybe life without baseball wasn't so bad after all.

``I didn't miss it, did you?'' says a Washington publishing executive who is a Dodger fanatic. ``I read more, I watched PBS, I even talked to my wife. It's kind of scary.''

Coping with the diamond drought? ``It was easy,'' adds a San Diego businessman. ``We had football. Of course, it's kind of hard for a Padres fan to get depressed because the season's over. They were pretty bad this year.''

One thing is certain: As baseball heads into its most chaotic off-season ever, the financial standoff between owners and players is leaving a sour taste in the mouths of average Americans. The baseball strike may have disrupted not just the habits of fans but the very rhythms of national life.

An old political saw holds that the campaign season begins after the World Series. When did it begin this year? Without playoff and Series games, television and advertising schedules had holes bigger than Tigers star Cecil Fielder. A story on Japanese baseball actually made the cover of Sports Illustrated.

When - maybe if - the strike ends, fans will likely return and things will seem normal on the surface. But the prevailing sentiment among an admittedly unscientific group surveyed was this: We'll find out who's responsible for this work stoppage, and we won't forget.

``I'll get them forever,'' says Tom Boswell, a Washington Post sportswriter and patron saint of devoted ``seamheads.'' ``I'm allowed. I'm a columnist.''

FOR those readers who have perhaps been immersed in stories about the German elections, here are the details thus far: Major league players walked out in mid-August to preempt owners from imposing a cap on the percentage of team revenues that can be used for player salaries.

Rich clubs such as the Yankees say that without a salary cap, they won't share revenues with small-market teams such as the Montreal Expos. Without revenue sharing, small-market teams say they'll go broke.

There's been little real negotiation during the impasse. Both sides appear to be positioning themselves for a strike that will last well into 1995. The latest move in this regard was the announcement of the new United League, which promises to begin play with 10 teams by 1996. The players probably hope the threat of a whole new league will give them added leverage.

The owners, for their part, are again talking about expansion. They heard bid proposals for teams from groups representing St. Petersburg, Fla.; Phoenix; and northern Virginia on Tuesday.

That these groups would have to pay current owners a much-needed $150 million fee to join their exclusive club is, of course, a coincidence. Some hold out hope that Washington will get involved, by voting to overturn the baseball owners' longstanding antitrust exemption. Such a move could lead to a court settlement of the strike.

The desperation of some fans is such that they've registered as Washington lobbyists to push for action. ``We're trying to evaluate the stand on baseball of everybody currently running for Congress,'' says Bill Gray, media director of a citizen lobby group dubbed World Serious Inc.

(Trivia break: Who's the only member of Congress around last time there was no World Series? Sen. Strom Thurmond (R) of South Carolina. The year was 1904.)

The strike has produced some flights of inspired creativity. The newspaper Baseball America has gone computer simulation of Series matchups one better: They're running articles on a putative World Series round robin between the US, Cuba, Japan, the Dominican Republic, and other baseball-playing nations.

The man behind the recreation, Baseball America managing editor Jim Callis, admits to something of an ironic position on the walkout. ``I'm more ticked off about the hockey strike,'' he says. ``I love hockey. I can't believe they're not playing.''

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