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A FANTASY WORLD <br> IT'S ROOT, ROOT FOR THE STATISTICS IN TODAY'S CHAOTIC GAME

I'll say this much about big-league baseball. Wait long enough and the game is bound to disappoint you. Given time and a captive audience, even the most innocuous stars become raving knuckleheads.

Take St. Louis slugger Mark McGwire. As we all know, the guy has enough power to launch a space shuttle. He does a lot of charitable work with children. He was once moved to tears when discussing his own son. But when the guy starts talking about the game, he turns into an airhead.

In recent interviews, McGwire offered a slew of dubious assertions. He said he couldn't understand all the commotion about his pursuit of Roger Maris' record of 61 homers. Nor could he grasp the media's fascination with expansion -- even though history shows the addition of new teams always results in a sharp increase in home runs.

He said the people who run baseball need to do a better job promoting it. Never mind that McGwire, one of the game's multimillionaire stars, has become increasingly reluctant to answer questions about his pursuit of Roger Maris' record of 61 homers in a season.

McGwire said interleague play, which was a huge success with fans last season, should be discontinued. He said people shouldn't tinker with the game, and insisted that baseball is fine and dandy just the way it is.

Come again, Mark? Everything's fine with our former national pastime? Are you kidding me? The game is still feeling the effects of the 1994 strike. It has gone five years without a permanent commissioner. The gap between rich and poor franchises continues to grow, despite the luxury tax. Two franchises, Montreal and Minnesota, are in danger of moving.

The games are too long. The pitching talent, woefully thin to begin with, has been stretched even further by the addition of two expansion teams, Arizona and Tampa Bay. The all-time hits leader, Pete Rose, is still trying to convince people he didn't bet on baseball and lobbying to get reinstated. Rupert Murdoch, a man of equally questionable character, now owns the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The game is fine? For the second time in four years, there's no defending champion. It was understandable in 1995, since there was no World Series title to defend because of the strike. But what happened to last year's Series champ, the Florida Marlins, is an outright travesty. One minute Craig Counsell was running across home plate with the winning run against the Indians. The next minute, Wayne Huizenga was dumping his players like so many used videos.

Only 13 of the 25 players on Florida's World Series roster are still with the team. Moises Alou, the batting hero of the Series, was dealt two weeks after the final out. Kevin Brown, the star pitcher, is gone. Closer Robb Nen, gone. Devon White, Jeff Conine, Dennis Cook. All gone. The payroll has been slashed from $50 million to $20 million.

If the Marlins were a car, they'd be up on blocks.

But that's modern-day baseball. You can't tell the players without a scorecard. In Cleveland, it might help to consult a '96 scorecard. Kenny Lofton, who was traded to Atlanta last March, is back in Cleveland. Marquis Grissom, who replaced Lofton in Cleveland last year, has moved on to Milwaukee, which has moved into the National League.

You got all that?

The Braves, looking to make the postseason for a record seventh straight year, invested $33 million in Andres Galarraga and Walt Weiss. They said goodbye to Fred McGriff and Jeff Blauser. The Cubs, determined to be serious contenders in the NL Central, acquired Blauser, Mickey Morandini, Rod Beck and Henry Rodriguez.

The Arizona Diamondbacks promise to be more competitive than the typical expansion team after committing $35 million in salaries. They signed Matt Williams, Jay Bell, Devon White, Willie Blair, Andy Benes . . . everyone but Elaine Benes, in other words.

Chuck Knoblauch is a Yankee. Former Oriole Randy Myers is a Blue Jay, former Blue Jay Joe Carter an Oriole. Darryl Kile abandoned a pitcher's paradise in Houston for a hurler's horror show in Colorado. No doubt, a three-year, $24 million contract will ease the transition. Pedro Martinez left the impoverished Expos for a six-year, $75 million deal with the Red Sox.

Let's face it, when a free agent can get more in one year than his former team spends on an entire 25-man roster, you know something's out of whack with the game.

Who knows where it will all end? Seattle's Randy Johnson will be a free agent after the season and has made it clear he wants out. The Mariners simply can't afford to pay him what the market dictates, so they either have to trade him or go through the season with a bitter, divisive presence in the locker room.

It's no wonder fans have trouble following major-league teams anymore. Most rock bands stay together longer. Imagine how the people in Florida must feel. It was truly electric in Pro Player Stadium during that seventh game last autumn. The fans had forged an emotional bond with the team and the sport. But just like that, it was severed by the owner.

Fans are better off rooting for individual players, the way fantasy league owners do. Have you noticed that there are more fantasy baseball magazines on the newsstands these days than conventional baseball mags? Any fantasy player will tell you that one of the game's risks is it can render team performance irrelevant. You find yourself clicking between games in search of individual players, oblivious to the inning and score.

Players who chase individual milestones seem to stir the public's imagination these days. Cal Ripken Jr.'s consecutive-games streak is the most cherished record in the game. Incidentally, Ripken will begin the year at 2,478 straight games, and I still say he should do his team a favor and end it.

Last year, the pennant races were upstaged to some degree by the long-ball exploits of McGwire and Seattle's Ken Griffey. McGwire, splitting his season between Oakland and St. Louis, hit 58 home runs, tying Jimmie Foxx and Hank Greenberg for the fourth-highest one-season total in history. Griffey hit 56 homers for the Mariners.

Now that baseball has expanded to 30 teams, the home-run derby should be even more spirited this year. The history is right there to guide us. In 1993, the year Colorado and Florida came into the National League, home run production increased by 25 percent. Home runs increased by an average of 25 percent in the previous three expansion seasons -- 1977, 1969 and 1961, the year Maris hit 61 to break Babe Ruth's record.

It's hard to believe for anyone who discovered baseball in the Sixties that Maris' record has survived longer than Ruth's did. But it doesn't figure to last that much longer. Hitting 50 home runs is no longer a rare feat. Between 1961 and 1991, only three players hit 50 -- Willie Mays (52) in 1965, George Foster (52) in 1977 and Cecil Fielder (51) in 1990.

In the last three years, it has been done five times. McGwire (52) and Brady Anderson (50) did it in 1996, Albert Belle (50) in 1995. The siege is on, and it wouldn't be a shock if five different players reached the 50-homer plateau this season.

McGwire, the only man besides Babe Ruth to hit 50 in consecutive seasons, is an obvious candidate to do it again. Griffey, who hit 49 dingers in 142 games in 1996, is a threat. So is Belle, who dipped to 30 homers a year ago, but once hit 31 in two months.

Juan Gonzalez of Texas has hit 89 homers in 267 games over the last two seasons, an average of exactly one homer every three games. Don't count him out. Finally, Matt Williams, who averaged better than one homer every three games in the 1994-95 seasons, could make a run at 60 if he stays healthy.

There are too many factors conspiring against the 61-homer standard for it to last much longer. Expansion has watered down the pitching staffs to an absurd degree. At some point this summer, you or I might be summoned to be the fifth starter for some beleaguered manager. If you're breathing, ambulatory and left-handed, there's a job for you somewhere, probably in long relief in the AL Central.

Then there's the new ballparks. Most of them have been constructed with offense in mind. We're now in the era of the check-swing line drive homer. If this year's shipment of baseballs is juiced in any way, God help the pitchers who have to stand 60 feet away from these increasingly well-muscled hitters.

So if 50 homers has become commonplace, 60 can't be far behind. In fact, if all of the aforementioned sluggers remain healthy, one of them is bound to hit 60 this year. I'll take it a step further. I've never been shy about making outlandish predictions, so here's one for 1998: Not one, but two of those five players will hit 60 home runs this year.

And if McGwire is one of them, let's just hope he lightens up by September. Maybe by then, he'll see chasing Maris not as a burden, but as a joy.