IT MUST BE COLLUSION BASEBALL'S PLAYERS AND OWNERS NOW AGREE ON SOMETHING: IT'S TIME TO PLAY UP TO THE FANS

May 07, 1995

''Can I carry your groceries to the car?'' Jose Canseco asks.

''No thanks,'' I say.

Really, Jose had already done enough. He had double-bagged the
perishables and ripped the coupon out of the circular to make
sure I got a buck off the Tide. And escorting me through the
express checkout lane, that was special. "No problem," he says.
"Glad to do it. Anything to help."

Major league baseball players--like my new best friend, Jose--have
been just swell since they ended their strike. They have been
greeting fans, posing for pictures, wearing yellow "smile"
patches on their uniform sleeves, buying rounds for the guys in
section 216. Jose didn't have to be so nice. Really, I only
expect that he'll hustle, hit some moon shots over the Green
Monster, register his guns and drive at something near the
Massachusetts speed limit.

''But how can I bring you a pizza in 30 minutes?'' he asks.

''Jose,'' I say, ''what's this all about?''

''The players are just trying to do a little fence-mending.''

''Too late. George Steinbrenner and Ted Turner came over and
replaced all the rotting posts yesterday.''

So that's it. Guilt over the 232-day baseball strike. Players.
Owners. They're trying to get back on our good side. Two hundred
and eighty-six million letters of apology, one for every
Canadian and U.S. citizen, might have been a start, but the
players and owners have decided to make peace in their own way.
Owners roll back prices to 1958 levels and invite Little
Leaguers to throw out the ceremonial first pitch. Players
discover the things kids wave under their noses are pens, not
switchblades, so they are pausing to sign something other than
seven-figure contracts. After canceling the World Series for the
first time in 90 years, after failing to find a way to divvy up
a $2 billion industry that has made them all rich, after
compromising the integrity of another season by trimming 18
games from the schedule, after resuming under the old work rules
as if the strike had been no more than a dream sequence from
Dallas, players and owners have finally agreed on one thing:
sucking up.

The apple-polishing is transparent, their behavior obsequious.

''Obsequious,'' Jose says. ''Want me to run that through
spell-check for you?''

I was more comfortable with the way players used to be: boorish,
egotistical, cynical. They showed up for union meetings in
stretch limos. They visited the White House without wearing
ties. I like to know which way the wind is blowing; it will help
me gauge the trajectory if Vince Coleman throws another
firecracker. But if players are serious about rehabilitating
their image, they should look at former Toronto Blue Jay and
current Oakland A's pitcher Dave Stewart. During the 1993
American League Championship Series, Stewart handed out turkey
dinners on Canadian Thanksgiving Day at a homeless shelter--and
he kicked out the television crews trying to film his kindness.
And last October, with the season aborted because of the strike,
with no hope that he would remain with the Blue Jays, Stewart
was back handing out food at that shelter. If a player wants to
''give back,'' let him do community service this year. And next
year. And the next.

I also liked the owners better when their greed wasn't
camouflaged by this sudden outbreak of respect for their
customers. Of course if the owners really wanted to keep the
price of going to baseball games reasonable, they would refrain
from asking taxpayers to build new stadiums for them. The owners
hate the players' arbitration system, but they play a variation
of the same game for even higher stakes: Well, if that other
team got (fill in the blank: a new ballpark, a sweetheart lease,
more luxury boxes), I need one too. The owners fired the
commissioner, provoked the strike and were prepared to pawn off
the loopy idea of replacement players as major league baseball.
For the custodians of the game, a winning team has become little
more than a marketing tool. The owners owe us something more
than cheaper seats.

Still, I admire the gamble baseball is taking with its new
servility. For every gimmick intended to placate alienated fans,
the question is, What took so long? Baseball might mesmerize
some fans by its conversion to decency, but it's simply
reminding the rest of us how long we've been played for saps.

Fans notice. Three men in T-shirts emblazoned with the word
GREED scattered one-dollar bills on the field at the New York
Met home opener. In Pittsburgh fans threw little plastic tubes
containing Pirate flags on the field. At Wrigley Field they
hurled refrigerator magnets. The first pitch hasn't cured
everything.

''Maybe I can baby-sit for you?'' Jose asks.

''Sure. The pay is $1.50 an hour, there are Cokes in the fridge
and, please, don't bring Madonna.''

''When will you be back?''

''Whenever the owners and players stop toadying and negotiate a
settlement.''

COLOR ILLUSTRATION:EVANGELOS VIGLIS [baseball player fanning fan sitting on the back of man in a suit]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)