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BASEBALL MAY BREAK YOUR HEART AGAIN

There is no peace and so there are no guarantees that baseball is back for good. There are only promises from disagreeable men that become suspect even before the words are out of their mouths.

"Anyone who has gone through this eight-month experience will let it serve as a poignant reminder that we have a responsibility to make sure it will never happen again, certainly in our lifetime," acting commissioner Bud Selig said Sunday.Believe what you want about the good intentions of Selig and his cabal and union boss Don Fehr and his. But remember the facts. They broke your heart once. If it comes down to it, they might again.

There is still no collective bargaining agreement, no commissioner with a conscience to steer the game clear of trouble, not even a no-strike pledge from the players.

The conditions that brought the curtain down around everyone's ears once are virtually unchanged. It's as if they burned all that time and all that money, even a World Series, for nothing. The players still insist on having the freedom to sign with the highest bidder; the owners still insist on making sure no one is free to pay too much.

A point of agreement lies midway between them, in sight from either side. Has been for months. This does not mean they will find it, now or ever. The temptation is to scream one last time, "Compromise!" as though these were kids who could be bullied into some kind of settlement. Then you recall how many times - and by whom - it was tried and rejected.

Men with fat wallets and few scruples cannot be budged easily. One of the best mediators in America learned that lesson on the first go-round. So did the president, who, like the rest of us now sadder and wiser, reacted to the news that baseball was back with both satisfaction and skepticism.

"Today's decision is good news for the game of baseball, its fans and the local economies of the cities where baseball is played," Clinton said.

"While I am heartened to know this season will start with major league players, there are a number of underlying issues which still need to get resolved."

There are no assurances that anything will get done. There is only this vague promise: "Trust us."

In exchange, in the coming days the players and owners will ask for forgiveness, for support and for loyalty. But most of all, they will ask for money. Shamed but still essentially shameless, their pleas count on the memories being short in some matters, longer in others.

It has to be short enough to forget the deer-in-the-headlights looks of the replacement players this spring, and the arrogant, knowing smiles on the faces of the originals just before they walked off the job in August. Then again, it must be long enough to remember that on a warm summer afternoon or evening, there are only a few cheaper and more agreeable diversions than watching the geometry of baseball unfold across a grand, green lawn.

The fact that it will be available once more at a major league stadium near you is in large part the result of a decision last week by a U.S. District Court judge Sonia Sotomayor. She shattered the owners' position with an injunction, cowing them almost as much with her knowledge of the game as she did with her authority.

Fans have long possessed both qualities, knowledge and power, though they never employed them in combination. Now is that time. In this same space a short while ago, the advice was walk, don't run to see baseball when it returns.

That will give the players and the owners plenty of time to earn your trust.