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WHO'S TO BLAME FOR STRIKE? STEP UP TO THE PLATE, BUD

Now that this unique baseball season lies in ruins, it's our duty to assign proper blame.

While there are many culprits in this mother of all ridiculous labor struggles, only one is truly at fault for this crime against the national pastime.Step up to the plate, Bud Selig.

As interim commissioner and owner of the Milwaukee Brewers (there's a contradiction for openers), Selig is responsible for all the gruesome numbers: 669 regular-season games plus the playoffs and World Series canceled, some $678 million lost in player salaries and owner revenues, nearly 21 million fans denied baseball, some 30,000 industry-related jobs lost.

Worse than that, Selig has killed the dreams of millions of fans and permanently damaged the sport.

While the game has prospered by and large for more than a century, only the egotistical Selig thinks he can ensure long-term success. And the chosen method was to kill a memorable season in a useless dispute over 8 percent of the sport's total revenues.

Instead of the salary cap which Selig knew players would never agree to, he could have focused on something that really needed altering - salary arbitration. But this whole dispute had to be orchestrated on Bud's terms.

We should have known Bud was capable of this kind of clueless leadership. Check his recent manuevers:

- With the help of his cohort Jerry Reinsdorf, owner of the Chicago White Sox, Selig changed the owners' voting rules back in January, requiring a 21-vote "super majority" to ratify a new labor agreement. That trickery helped set the stage for Wednesday's travesty.

- It was Selig who brought in owners' negotiator Richard Ravitch, a hard-line negotiator with experience in breaking unions.

- For most of the season, Selig maintained, without financial statements to support it, that 19 of 28 teams were losing money. This assertion was so absurd that even Selig eventually retreated from it.

- Selig eliminated the possibility of real negotiations by keeping Colorado Rockies owner Jerry McMorris away from the mix until it was too late. McMorris, who has a distinguished background in labor relations, was trusted by the players and union leader Don Fehr.

Selig's Wednesday declaration was a beauty.

"The union refused to bargain with us over costs and took a hard-line position that the clubs would fold as they had in past negotiations," Selig said. "That was a terrible mistake, one for which all of us must pay."

Excuse me, but wasn't that a players' proposal last week with some ideas on revenue sharing and a form of a salary cap? And was it a coincidence that some observers believed a deal was imminent until you showed up and squashed it?

Here's another sordid tale - how Selig got in charge. First, he got into baseball by being a pest. A continual hanger-on at every ownership gathering for years, Reinsdorf finally greased the track and hauled him in. A bankruptcy judge helped award him the Brewers in 1970.

Two years ago, Reinsdorf and Selig hatched the plot to oust commissioner Fay Vincent. The hard-line owners wanted a small-market owner to spearhead their war with the players.

Enlightened observers point out that baseball has been able to regulate itself - without Bud's help. A real commissioner was established in 1921 to arbitrate disputes. And if a team did not prosper, the owner could just move it somewhere else.

That's precisely how Bud's beloved Milwaukee wound up with two teams - the Braves moved from Boston in 1953 only to wither and move to Atlanta in 1966. The Brewers began as the Seattle Pilots in 1969 before moving to Milwaukee after one dismal year.

But now Bud says moving teams is a no-no.

"You can't move every team to St. Petersburg or Phoenix," he says.

In signing the season's death decree, Selig pointed out that as bad as the short-term pain is for the game, the long-term pain of present fiscal rules would be far worse.

Explain that to the fans in Cleveland, who patiently waited as their team developed talent in recent years and helped the city build a wonderful new ballpark. Now the Indians are deprived of their first postseason appearance in 40 years.

Montreal, often mentioned as vulnerable in Bud's small-market fantasy, was having an artistic season that could have turned the franchise into a financial winner.

Alas, there could be a just reward for Selig. With unprecedented chaos on the horizon, his Brewers may be so financially pressed that they might go bankrupt if this strike spreads into next season. That would please a lot of players and union folks.

Then there are the 17 or 18 big-market owners who took the worst financial pounding from this nonsense. If there is no deal by December, they could get together and dump Selig. For now, he has them under a gag order. That won't last for long.

Hopefully, Selig will forever be mentioned with the Black Sox among baseball's criminals. Not only has he received $1 million to serve as commissioner, he has done everything to help set up this mess.

He's proved just as inept as interim commissioner as he did as Brewers owner. (Milwaukee has had two postseason appearances in 24 years.)

If Selig does actually love the game as much as he professes, the condemnation he deserves will be his eternal cross to bear.