Baseball no-hopers take to field of dreams

It's that time of year again - when young men dream of spring, old men dream of being young again, and practitioners of major league baseball (a sport once widely played in the United States) make their way to the sunny fields of Florida and Arizona for that great annual rite known as spring training.

And so they will again this year, though no one has the faintest idea of quite who will be turning up. Welcome to the strange new sport of ``replacement baseball'', brought about because the owners and players of the real thing are locked in the longest, most bitter dispute in the history of American professional sport, probably indeed in the history of pro-sport anywhere.

Today the first of 28 major league club training camps will open for pitchers and catchers, warming up for the month-long season of exhibition games which begins on 1 March. Then they head back north for the opening day of the regular season in early April. The spring training which matters this year, however, will take place not on green diamonds in the likes of Tampa Bay, Fort Lauderdale and Tucson, but in courts of law and on Capitol Hill.

Keep Congress out of the baseball strike, say Republicans and Democrats alike, mindful that this is one field where everyone so far has been a loser.

"Just a few hundred folks trying to work out how to divvy up a couple of billion dollars," said President Clinton the other day, as he brought the moral authority of the most powerful elected office on earth to rescue the national pastime. Would that it were so simple. If Mr Clinton thought he had a surefire way of winning back the angry white male vote which deserted him in November - no way.

And earlier Bill Usery, the former Labor Secretary who is considered the most skilful mediator in the country, struck out too.

"The most bitter dispute I have ever seen," the 71-year-old Mr Usery declared after four wasted months trying to broker an end to the conflict which brought the players out on strike last 12 August and caused the first cancellation of the World Series in 90 years. Today on the central issue of a salary cap, the two sides are as far apart as on Day One.

And so, like it or not, Congress is biting the bullet. A small bipartisan group of Senators this week introduced a bill that would partly strip professional baseball of the exemption it enjoys, alone of the major sports, from the US anti-trust laws. If they gain the right to bring an unfair labour practice suit in the courts, say the players, they will end the strike. Oh yes, the owners respond - "do that and we'll lock you out anyway".

And so 1995's vile-tempered rite of spring gets under way. The owners have not yet named the unknowns, no-hopers and never-wozzers they have recruited to fill the places of the strikers.

Will these millionaire players form picket lines outside the training camps? Will there be an Opening Day at all?

And most important of all, given the dwindling number of Americans who aren't by now disgusted with the whole squalid affair, who cares?

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