". . . There are millions of dollars at stake. Maybe I'm being paranoid, but if he (George Steinbrenner) is starting a blackball procedure, I certainly want to have something to say about it - not only for me, but for the cause of journalistic integrity."

- Tony Kubek

[LINE ILLEGBLE] heard about the lingering spat between George Steinbrenner, the strong-willed owner of the New York Yankees, and former Yankee short-stop Tony Kubek, now NBC's leading color commentator on baseball.

NBC Sports executives have treated this as a tempest in a teapot - a short-lived personal feud that will not re-occur. But the episode has larger implications that touch on the entire concept of network sports coverage as currently structured.

Briefly, Kubek was quoted in a newspaper interview during spring training to the effect that Steinbrenner manipulates people, creates turmoil on the Yankees by making employees fear for their jobs, and regards the ball club as an expensive toy - not-so-novel sentiments that are supported by considerable evidence, in fact.

Not surprisingly, Steinbrenner took offense. He sent copies of the article to all his fellow team owners with attached notes critical of Kubek. "How's this for the mouth that bites the hand that feeds it?" he wondered.

Nothing wrong with that. The right to express righteous indignation is guaranteed by the First Amendment. But then Steinbrenner supposedly forbade any Yankees to be interviewed by Kubek when NBC televised New York's April 8 season opener at Texas. One report has it that the owner dispatched an employee to tell every player not to talk to Kubek. If any disobeyed, the messenger would be fired.

Kubek avoided a confrontation by walking off the field and leaving broadcast partner Joe Garagiola to do the inverviews. He didn't want to get anybody in trouble, Kubek said, even though several players apparently were dying to go on the air with him. The only thing that seems to unite the divided Yanks is defiance of "Kaiser Steinbrenner."

The owner later requested, and had, an April 18 meeting with Chet Simmons, president of NBC Sports. Kubek has intimated that Steinbrenner wanted him dismissed from his network baseball assignment, and it is plausible that the man some call "the Richard Nixon of baseball," complete with "enemies list," might think the best way to deal with "the mouth that bites the hand that feeds it" would be to pull out its teeth and tongue.

Steinbrenner says he talked with Yankee Manager Billy Martin before the Texas game, made his displeasure with Kubek known, but issued no direct order for his players not to talk to the commentator. He also emphatically denies going after Kubek's job, saying, "I wouldn't do that."

Simmons says he thinks Steinbrenner's attempts to involve NBC in his personal feud with Kubek were "terribly inappropriate," but that after discussing the matter with the owner for 15 minutes it was laid to rest.

"It in no way affects Tony's relationship with NBC's with the New York Yankees," Simons says. "We had that one situation in Texas. There has been no repeat of it, and I don't think there will be. George has told me that he is not trying in any way, shape or manner to get Kubek's job, nor will he. He couldn't anyway. Baseball has no consultation rights as to what announcers we put on the air."

But theoretically, what if Kubek or any other commentator voiced criticism on the air that resulted in an owner-imposed "gag rule"?

"I would look at it as an awful spec-ongoing thing," admist Simmons. "If a manager or general manager or owner felt somebody from NBC or any other network said something they didn't care for, and put an embargo on their players talking to us, I would do something about it, directly through the man involved and through the mechanics of major league baseball."

Lovely. A network has the right to express righteous indignation too. But to carry the argument to its next logical step, would Commissioner Bowie Kuhn back up NBC's right to be critical of the sport?

Perhaps. Baseball needs the millions of dollars NBC and ABC pay it in rights fees. In fact, in many ways, it is TV that is feeding baseball, as is the case with most major American professional sports these days.

Why else would Kuhn sit coatless through a night game in mid-October in the shivering Northeast - "out there in his thermal underwear, pretending it was warm," as Simmons says - but to justify playing the World Series in prime time, for top dollar. Big pro sports, as currently structured in the U.S., need TV revenue.

Fine. Baseball will protect TV, schedule games at its behest, play in driving rain if need be. But there are rival networks. The existing contracts with NBC and ABC are up in 1979.

Perhaps CBS would like to get into the picture, or ABC would like to have major league baseball to itself. That gives Chet Simmons and NBC something to think about, and provides George Steinbrenner and the other owners who employ the esteemed Mr. Kuhn some leverage. Who is to say that, if the big bucks dictate, a Tony Kubek might not some day be sacrificed to an egomaniac's whim?

"I think the pressure like that always exists," says Simmons, "but in order to be honest with ourselves, we still have to preserve our journalistic integrity. That sounds like a mouthful of pap, but I really mean it.

"It was claimed a couple of years ago that we didn't show the outrageous fan reaction in Yankee Stadium when the Yankees lost the World Series in four straight games to the Reds because we were ordered not to show the angry fans by Bowie Kuhn. That was a flat-out, unadulterated lie," continued Simmons.

"Surely you feel the pressure of the competition, another guy wanting your event and bidding for it, but I don't think we let that stand in the way of doing an honest job of reporting."

Perhaps. Perhaps not. And perhaps not intentionally.

Most network commentators see themselves less as shills than journalists trying to do an honest job. But in the background, often unstated, is a constant pressure not to say anything that will offend the party that decides whether or not the contract for broadcast rights is renewed.

That is the nature of a system in which one network pays huge rights fees to the management of a major event for the exclusive rights to televise it. The network has a vested interest in hyping the event (as its competitors do in downplaying it), and in effect the telecast becomes less an honest journalistic treatment that an extension of the event itself.

In such circumstances, even for good commentators who have journalistic integrity, discretion may become the better part of candor.