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MAJOR LEAGUE OWNERS PONDERING CRAZY IDEA

I IT HAD BEEN a while since I heard of a genuinely zany idea, something madcap and downright goofy.

But now the word is that the major-league baseball moguls are getting serious about a long-range plan to emulate the National Football League and use strikebreakers, sometimes indelicately referred to as scabs, to field teams in the event of a player strike next season.

You forgot that the contract between the Baseball Players' Association and the major-league owners was running out? You thought peace was at hand on a permanent basis?

Sweet, innocent babies.

In pro sports, peace is never permanent. What you can expect in the 1990 baseball season is one of two things: Either the owners will lock out the players in spring training or shortly after the regular season begins; or the players will go out on strike about halfway through the season.

The strategy of the players would be to pile up their early paychecks and then stop playing before the owners start collecting their biggest checks late in the first season of their rich new television contract with CBS.

The owners are exploring lockout insurance and other related strategies in case they want to stop play themselves before the players start earning their big checks and become economically invulnerable.

The players, for their part, have been trying to negotiate individual, lockout-proof contracts that would pay them whether they played or not.

The zany part is the idea being discussed seriously by management to keep the stadiums open and the games played even if there is a strike. The NFL recruited entire new teams after the footballers went out on strike in 1987. The baseball owners would fill their rosters by elevating minor leaguers to the majors.

It is a formula for disaster, a far bigger disaster than was visited upon football.

From an artistic standpoint, scab baseball would be much better than scab football. For openers, meshing 50 strangers into a functioning football team in a few days isn't easy. Strike football was a travesty.

Baseball, on the other hand, is an individual sport. Put nine players, particularly professionals, together at noon and by 1 p.m. they might present decent entertainment. Substitute a Triple A game for a major-league game and even casual fans might notice the difference, but only the avid fans and the purists would make an issue of the difference. To the casual fans, everything is relative.

Where the idea gets dangerous is away from the field.

Unlike the strikebreaking football players, who went back to being bartenders, lifeguards and graduate students when the real NFLers returned, the strikebreaking baseball players, or at least the best of them, eventually would return to take their rightful places in the major-league lineups.

That is where it would get very sticky.

Remember the major-league umpires' strike about a decade ago? The games went on because substitute umpires were recruited, mostly from the Triple A minor leagues.

Some of the replacement umps were good. Some were retained as regulars after the strike, but their lives were made miserable by the returning strikers.

Umpires travel in units of four. On a unit that contained an ex-strikebreaker, three umpires would travel together to the stadium and back. They would eat together and relax together. The fourth, the ex-strikebreaker, would be treated as if he didn't exist. He would be spoken to only in the line of baseball duty.

Today, a baseball generation later, some of those ex-strikebreakers still are treated like outcasts. To people who believe strongly in unions, there is no such thing as a "former" scab.

It would be even worse for the players if they crossed picket lines.

For some it would be unthinkable. Take Jay Bell of the Bisons. He has been back and forth between Triple A and the majors for the last few years. Presumably, he is a member of some standing in the Players' Association. He has a year and a month credited toward his major-league pension. He has enjoyed some of the benefits won by the union.

Say he was still in Triple A next year, mastering his new position, third base. If a strike were called and a major-league team attempted to bring up Bell for its replacement games, he would be in a terrible position.

Considering the progress he is making at third base now, Bell probably would make a natural progression back to the majors anyway. His professional struggle has been difficult enough without having his future teammates shun him.

The makeup of the best major-league baseball cities is different from those in football, too.

Counterfeit football was a big seller in Dallas which, to say the least, is not a strong union area. Strikebreaker baseball might sell in Dallas, not a strong baseball city.

But some of the most loyal baseball fans live in cities such as Detroit, St. Louis and Philadelphia, which are fervent union areas. Respect for the picket line likely would win over love for baseball.

No, the baseball owners and the union would be a lot better off suing each other than squaring off in a bitter fight over scabs.

They might even try a genuinely radical idea: Sitting down calmly and negotiating reasonably.

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