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NATIONAL PASTIME LOSING TOUCH

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What if Leonardo da Vinci had decided to crumple up and throw away the canvas on which he was painting the Mona Lisa just as he was applying the finishing touches? What if Charles Dickens had thrown away his writing tablet halfway through "The Christmas Carol?"

Granted, the comparison is a bit of a stretch, but major-league baseball is coming as close as it can to putting on a masterpiece of a season, and the players and owners seem willing to throw it all away with their strike.If the strike lasts more than a week or two, fans will never know whether Matt Williams could have broken the single-season home run record, or whether Tony Gwynn could have become the first player since 1941 to hit .400 or whether the Cleveland Indians could have won a pennant for the first time in 40 years.

Even if the games resume later, the accomplishments during a strike-shortened season always will carry an asterisk next to them. They will become of little value in a sport where fans value statistics almost as much as action on the field.

If the strike teaches anything, it is that people never can truly be satisfied with wealth. They always will want more. Both sides in this dispute seem as rational as prospectors fighting over an enormous treasure that holds more than enough wealth for each of them.

The owners shoulder most of the guilt. They are enjoying record revenues from attendance and television as well as from the licensing of team logos and names. Even the franchises with the worst on-field performances would fetch multi millions if put up for sale. Yet the owners can't figure a way to share their wealth so that teams from smaller cities aren't at a competitive disadvantage. Instead, they want to impose a salary cap on the players.

But the players aren't without guilt, either. Salary caps are in effect in professional basketball and football. And the average big-league baseball salary has gone from $46,000 to $1.2 million in 19 years. That is hardly a record worthy of a work stoppage.

Baseball's owners and players seem to be losing touch with the fans, the people on whom the game really relies, and that may yet prove to be their downfall.

Masterpiece seasons like 1994 don't come along too often, and the fans may not be so willing to forgive the disrespect shown by throwing it all away.