Like the United Nations, the annual congressional baseball game is designed to be a place for adversaries to sublimate their hostilities with minimal damage. Occasionally damage exceeds the minimal, as in 1956, when Gene McCarthy, poet, congressman and former Great Soo League first baseman, rounded third and steamed into home, where he encountered Republican catcher Tom Curtis. Curtis spent the rest of the evening at the hospital with a dislocated shoulder. The next year, recalls Sid Yudain in the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call, Speaker Sam Rayburn called a halt to the game because of "possible serious injury or death." Generally, however, play has been as genteel as a minority counsel's cross-examination of Oliver North.

The same cannot be said of the pre-game maneuvering. There used to be a generally accepted rule -- like the rule that you may reject a Supreme Court nominee for sins against competence and morality, but not for ideology -- that you don't use ex-professional players in these games. The rule was born in the third inning of the 1969 game, after Rep. Wilmer "Vinegar Bend" Mizell, former pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals, had struck out six consecutive Democrats. A student of the game claims that the first inning featured Mizell blowing 9 straight strikes past Democratic batters, one of whom reported that he had not seen two of the pitches but did hear a third.

Mizell's feat prompted the manager of the Democratic team to anticipate a future party campaign theme and protest in the name of fairness. Republicans, in their first recorded acquiescence to the principle of reverse discrimination, banished Mizell to the outfield, where he could do no harm to Democratic egos and batting averages.

Whatever you may think of the original rule, it did grow into a settled practice. Until this year, that is. Tom McMillen (D-Md.), newly retired from the NBA, is newly elected to the House. Tom Downey is captain of the Democrats' basketball team. Showing a regard for precedent so casual that it qualifies him as a top candidate for the next Democratic opening on the Supreme Court, Downey played McMillen last winter in the annual congressional basketball game.

The Republicans moaned, the Democrats won, but the person most dismayed by this violation of settled practice was Democrat Mel Levine of California. He's a pitcher. And he realized that with the McMillen maneuver, deterrence had broken down. Republicans were in a position to retaliate massively. They would now feel free to send rookie Rep. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.), who has pitched no-hitters in both major leagues, against Levine and the Demos in the annual congressional baseball game.

Some congressional analysts claim that the motive for the Democrats' McMillen maneuver was more sophisticated and sinister than has been reported. They say that Downey, an ardent nuclear freeze advocate and SDI foe, was looking beyond a mere basketball game (though with McMillen he won by four). His real aim was to provide Republican hawks with a vivid demonstration of the risks and dangers of upsetting the established rules of deterrence.

Presented with this interpretation of the McMillen maneuver, Downey demurred. Asked if that should be taken as a Poindexterian assertion of plausible deniability, Downey immediately resorted to the flat denial. And, he protested, one cannot compare a basketball player to a pitcher: the former is one of five, the latter controls the game. Besides, said Downey, "McMillen's main function was inspirational." But then again, so is a 90 mph fastball.

Well, maybe 50. Democratic fears, as usual, proved to be exaggerated. On game night it turned out that Bunning's fast ball had lost its velocity (the word "speed" is no longer in use) since his last outing in 1971. He did strike one batter out with his curve ball, but threw it only once more (too much of a strain, not on the arm -- "I only need that for signing things" -- but on the body). Bunning, who has pitched only four or five games in the past 16 years, retired to a first base sinecure after only two innings on the mound. The younger Levine, on the other hand, went the distance, holding the Republicans to 14 runs. But in this delightful orgy of stolen bases, passed balls and fallen outfielders, that was enough. The Democrats won 15-14. In the major leagues, they called that winning ugly. In Congress, they call it a mandate.

Both sides are already looking ahead to next year. On game day, Downey asked Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson if he was interested in a St. Louis congressional seat. Republicans, apparently, have a different strategy. They are asking the White House to have their team reflagged as the New York Yankees.