In May of 1975, an outfielder named Cleon Jones, a hero in decline with the New York Mets, took off all his clothes and went to sleep in a van parked on a downtown street in St. Petersburg, Fla. He shared the mobile boudoir with a woman who was not his wife. An enterprising policeman arrested the two, charging them with indecent exposure (pajama-makers cheered).

The charges were soon dropped for lack of evidence. Had the story ended there, it would have been only another instance of man at play. But M. Donald Grant, board chairman of the Mets, assessed Jones a $2,000 fine for breaking training. And in his dual capacity as righteousness incarnate, Grant ordered a public shaming of the man who had more hits, more home runs and more runs batted in than any other Met ever. Cleon Jones, a World Series hero in 1969, became Hester Prynne in spikes.

Grant hauled Jones and the naughty boy's wife, Angela, to a press conference on May 14, 1975. Imagine. "Cleon, could you tell us what kind of van it was?" "Mrs. Jones, when did you first suspect?" "Mr. Grant, does this explain Cleon's poor spring?" In the spirit of kindness that marked his behavior throughout, Grant gave no time for such questions. Cleon had a statement to make, Grant said. He, Grant, would read it aloud for the press.

"I wish to apologize to my wife and children (Grant/Jones said), the Mets' ownership and management, my teammates, to all Met fans and to baseball in general . . . I am ashamed . . . I am basically a good man and have no desire to be bad."

It went on that way. At the end, speaking for himself, Grant said of his wayward flychaser: "I hope he will not be persecuted here by anyone." Barely two months later, so poor Cleon would not be further hurt, the Mets kicked him off their roster.M. Donald Grant, de massah, will do anything for his boys.

This week, he proved it again. Grant traded Tom Seaver, baseball's best pitcher, to the Cincinnati Reds for four guys going nowhere. It was not Seaver's sin to be napping in a van; he had questioned the competence of Cleon Jones' kindly protector, chairman Grant.

Seaver thought the Mets should have been more energetic in pursuit of the free agents available last winter. Only instant hitting could make the Mets a winner. Seaver said. But the front office made no more than a token gesture, offering a reported $600,000 less than Gary Matthews took from Atlanta.

Unlike Jones, whose bargaining power was diminished by advancing age, Seaver is at the top of his game. Protected by his station, Seaver in the spring of 1976 came out strongly on the side of the players in a labor-management dispute. Of all the players' adversaries in that one, none was more consumed by the holy nature of his mission than M. Donald Grant, who saw in the players' demands for a sort-of freedom the very end of baseball, perhaps the end of life as we know it. Nothing worse than uppity slaves.

That was the first public Seaver-Grant confrontation. The bitterness was compounded in Seaver's contract negotiations that spring. The pitcher asked for $800,000 over three years. Grant said no, it was time for someone - he was The One - to stand up against such insanity. It was time, said the man who emasculated Cleon Jones in front of television cameras, for players to be loyal to their bosses.

Seaver eventually signed for three years at $225,000 per, saying he accepted the smaller figure because he liked his playmates with the Mets. The battles of this spring, however, were proof certain to Seaver that the nice things about working for the Mets no longer were reason to justify acceptance of his bosses' failings.

Unlike Jones, whose ability to feed his family depended on Grant's approval, Seaver does not need The One. Among other things, Seaver has called Grant a "lunatic," although in a fit of mistaken sympathy he apologized the next day.

In the end, Seaver asked to be traded. He wanted away from Grant, who in transparent collusion with a New York Daily News columnist, Dick Young, told sports-page readers that Tom Seaver was an ungrateful, disloyal, greedy, destructive force bereft of any redeeming value beyond his fast ball. It turns out Grant was only warming up on Jones two years ago.

So Grant traded Seaver. Perhaps the chairman believes baseball will be saved by the hard-liners who don't put up with the big-shot ballplayers pouting. Perhaps he believes the players' relative freedom to move from team to team will destroy baseball. It won't. Free enterprise works marvelously well in every corner of America, and baseball will be no exception.

Baseball's gamblers, the high-rollers looking for a free agent to deliver a championship, have created a false market in which a Wayne Garland, say, is paid in seven figures. In time such foolishness will disappear and stability will return to the game - albeit a stability different from that of the bad old days when Grant and his mouthpiece Young remember the slaves shuffling in silence.