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ATTITUDE ABOUT `CRIME' IS WAY OFF BASE

Some crimes against baseball are worse than others.

From 1985 to 1988 the major-league owners agreed secretly among themselves not to sign free agents from one another's clubs.This collusion violated their contract with the players and resulted in their fielding something less than the best possible teams.

That offense against all players and all fans never prompted any discipline, not even a word of disapproval from a baseball commissioner.

In August 1990, for a baseball "crime" directed at a single player, with no discernible effect on the game, George Steinbrenner received a lifetime banishment from Commissioner Fay Vincent.

Steinbrenner had paid $40,000 to an admitted gambler for derogatory information about his star outfielder, Dave Winfield.

The official position, that Steinbrenner was kicked out because the institution of baseball rose up to defend a player, is ludicrous.

The real reason for the severity of the punishment is that commissioners, who are appointed by the club owners and can just as easily be fired by them, have to slow down free-spending owners who tilt the salary scale.

Steinbrenner fits that description.

Steinbrenner contributed to higher baseball salaries from the beginning of free agency, signing Catfish Hunter to a record contract in 1975, then Reggie Jackson and others in the years that followed, and paying even higher salaries to less-talented players in recent years.

In 1989, with the collusion scheme against free agents in tatters, a record-high network-TV contract in place and the Yankees' $486 million local cable contract starting, the potential for astronomical spending concerned the owners. And thus the Yankees' owner took a fall.

But there are reasons why Steinbrenner may be let back into the game.

For one thing, his absence certainly has not kept player salaries down.

More important, a competitive New York franchise is a must for the long-term health of the league.

The Yankees are the most storied team in baseball. A high-profile champion puts TV money and gate receipts into the coffers of all the teams.

And there are many indications that the Yankees cannot operate successfully under an unenforceable ban against meaningful decisions by the majority owner.

Although he banned Steinbrenner for life, the commissioner publicly suggested at the time that a suspension of only two years was appropriate.

This would suggest that in August the majority owner of the Yankees will be permitted to return.

One caveat is necessary. Baseball owners and officials frequently are strangers to logic.

Recently, I was asked if I thought Steinbrenner and Pete Rose would be returned to eligibility. My answer then and now is that Steinbrenner has a far greater chance.

The holder of the all-time record for base hits, Rose, is not likely to enhance revenue. That, in the eyes of baseball's owners and officials, makes him expendable.

(Marvin Miller, former executive director of the Major League Players Association, is author of "A Whole Different Ball Game.")