Saving the Game

FIRST came expansion teams and designated hitters, then multi-division leagues and wild-card playoff spots.

Now it's interleague play. The edifice of baseball, once America's grand athletic tradition, continues to remodel.

The reason, as always, is to rejuvenate the public's interest in the game. Younger Americans have deserted the ''national pastime'' in droves. Basketball and football grab the mega-audiences, and the country's sports interests are dispersing in new directions as well - soccer, for instance.

Interleague play isn't a bad idea. It will bring some extra fans into the old ball park (or the new domed monstrosity) to see, in person versus on TV, a new set of opponents. And it will allow natural rivalries (the Yankees and the Mets, Cubs and White Sox, Giants and A's, for instance) to flourish. In fact, if it's smart, baseball's management will make sure those matchups happen every year.

But this latest fix-up won't by itself save the game.

Baseball's movers and shakers should remember that a lot of what makes their game attractive is its place in American history and nostalgia.

What has demolished that aspect of baseball for most people is the endless contract bickering between millionaire owners and players. Solve that one, and the game may have a brighter future.

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