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BASEBALL'S SORRY STATE WILL IMPROVE AFTER GREED DIES DOWN

Boy, these are sorry days for baseball.

What with corruption and avarice rearing their godless heads at every level of the game, it's no wonder final epithets are being written all over the place for the boys of summer. Ty Cobb is said to be spinning in his grave while the ghost of Babe Ruth sits in its underwear and wails inconsolably in the locker room late at night.How did we come to this pitiable state?

Hard to say precisely, but it's all rooted in the fundamental quality of, oh, human nature, for lack of a better label.

These things happen.

"If you like major league baseball, you had better take yourself out to the ball park this month," writes the venerable columnist George F. Will in Newsweek. "You may not get back there until 1994."

Now George F. Will is a smart man, even if he is a Republican, and he knows a lot about baseball. But he has a maudlin tendency to overstate trouble and needs to lighten up here. The sun will rise again, the birds will sing, there will be baseball next year.

What George is right about is that too many players make too much money. It's not that George and I are Communists and think everybody should be paid the same. It's just that the fundamental problem created by this money madness weighs heavy on our minds. The tradition of the talented but unpolished inner-city kid or farm boy making it to the field of dreams is becoming a romantic myth as franchises find they have no money to spend on player development after they've met payroll.

The blunt example that comes to mind is the once-great dynasty that has become the shabby Los Angeles Dodgers of 1992. Here's a team whose record suggests it isn't worth much more than a warm bucket of spitballs. The Dodgers may well finish dead last in their division and are on track to lose 97 games. 1905 was the last time they were in the cellar; they've lost that many games only four times before. This is Truly Bad Baseball.

Why has it happened? Maybe because $7.1 million of the Dodger payroll is being blown on two superstars who are having terrible years. Eric Davis and Darryl Strawberry at last check were batting a combined .232. If baseball was a classroom, they'd both have a C-minus. You could take that kind of money and pay 10 players who'd do just as good. Or get five that would do better.

The same thing is happening elsewhere, with the California Angels and the New York Yankees, to name just a couple.

There have been other bad signs of late. When Fay Vincent, the commissioner of major league baseball, was felled in a palace coup by the owners a couple of weeks ago it meant that a good and decent man had lost his fight for what's best for the game to a gang of businessmen more interested in the bottom line.

And then came the news that the Philippine national team was stripped of its Little League World Series title because its roster was padded with ringers. Not even baseball-for-kids was beyond the grip of the greedy.

But I say scandals come and scandals go, and baseball will get back to its natural state of grace sooner or later, the salary system righting itself one day as the better angels of the bean-counters' nature gain the upper hand and noble role models are restored to the highest and lowest levels of the game.

As somebody said the other day in pondering the Little League shame, because fans ultimately demand fair competition, nothing can permanently cripple the game. Not even the imminent return of a bad seed like George Steinbrenner, the Yankees owner who in 1990 because of his gambling connections was supposed to have been kicked out of baseball for life but will be back next year.

Sure, Steinbrenner's a bad influence, but even he will die someday. And when those halcyon days of summers past finally return, perhaps his will be the sad and restless ghost who cries to itself in the locker room late at night.