Bill Madlock's hands trembled a bit as he tried to compose himself to talk about his crime -- his assault on an umpire -- which has earned him the stiffest suspension for an on-field incident in the history of baseball.

"Everywhere I go, people treat me like I was an assassin. That's all I read and hear," said the Pittsburgh Pirate third baseman who has the highest career batting average of any National Leaguer (.320).

"This is the only place I can relax," said Madlock, nodding toward the disc madness of the Buc clubhouse. "These are the only people who have stuck with me.

"The more I think about the 15-day suspension, the more unfair I realize it is. I wouldn't mind paying a $20,000 fine, not just $5,000, but that suspension is like a permanent mark against your character, like I did the worst think in the history of baseball.

"No matter what the final decision is within baseball, I won't accept that 15 days. This decision could go all the way to the courts, not just (National League President Charles) Feeney and (Commissioner Bowie) Kuhn.

"This could end up being a test case on whether baseball can keep on being a law unto itself where you have no right of appeal to a neutral person, where there's no impartial arbitration."

Ever since Madlock humiliated home plate umpire Jerry Crawford 10 days ago by shoving his glove in the ump's face, the walls have been closing in on him.

"I'm just beginning to realize that this nightmare could go on and on," said Madlock, who still is waiting for a Kuhn ruling that could come any day.

The incident between Madlock and Crawford always will remain a bit mysterious because, according to Madlock, "nobody, but nobody, has a TV replay. It's my word against the umpires'. I've already learned that it that situation, I'm the only one who can lie; an umpire can't.'

The position of the umpires, and of baseball, was simply stated by NL spokesman Blake Cullen: "You cannot physically assault an umpire. The league cannot stand for that. An argument is one thing, but once you lay hands on an umpire, you are looking for major trouble.

"Bill is not a first offender, either. He has been suspended three times before for being in fights."

Madlock wishes he had those "35 seconds" back again. "I'm sorry I did what I did, and I would expect some penalty, but not nearly such a harsh one. I'm being treated like some crazy, out-of-control-type person. I would never fight an umpire anywhere."

The two-time batting champ, who has always been a scrappy player ("with the chubby little body I got, I can't make it any other way"). Nevertheless thinks his case is more complicated than a mere hot-headed assult.

"Umpires have been touched before, many times.If I'd slapped him with my open hand, I'd probably have gotten five days and $500.

"Nobody mentions that Crawford pointed in my face and cursed me. It's not the first time.

"Crawford's been written up (reported to league authorities) by me and by other players for cursing us. He's always been a chesty guy.

"He says I was cussing him over my shoulder as I was walking away (after a third-strike call). Well, I did say that he'd made a horsebleep, bleeperbleeping call. but that's not the same thing as calling him those things."

Madlock, obviously, has gotten himself on the thinnest possible ice. Who is going to come to the defense of a player who rubs his glove in an umpire's face?

"What Madlock did was more effective than kicking dirt or any of the usual stuff," said an anonymous Pirate. "He didn't hurt Crawford, but he sure made him look like a fool. For an umpire, that's almost worse than getting punched. What Billy did was too smart and too funny for his own good."

Complicating the situation is the lingering bad blood between the umpire's union and baseball brass stemming from last year's strike. After the Madlock incident, the crew on a Priate game threatened not to work if Madlock played.

"The league wanted to do something to get back on the good side of the umps," Madlock said. "So they nailed me.

"I've talked to Marvin Miller (players union director) and he's upset," Madlock said. "One of the points in the current bargaining is the lack of impartial arbitration in disciplinary decisions like this. This could be a landmark case.

"As it was, when I had my hearing (with Feeney), I felt I was driving through a small Southern town and got stopped."

A year ago at this time, baseball was busy undermining the authority of its umpires by being too cheap to come up with the paltry half-million dollars that would have met all their long-overdue demands. Instead, amateur umpires were brought in, and the brass of organized baseball swore they were almost as good as the pros.

Even now, the umpires cannot get a fifth man for their crews or a provision for a day off every couple of weeks during their seven-month roadtrip of a season.

At every turn for years, umpires have been given the short end of the stick. Their only tradeoff has been the tradition that their persons are inviolable -- that they can't be touched.

Juan Marichal cracked John Roseboro over the head with a bat at home plate in 1965 and his suspension was only eight days. Many an umpire is bumped, poked or even "accidently" knocked flat in arguments every year and nothing happens.

But Bill (Mad Dog) Madlock, a bumptious guy with a knack for getting in scrapes, thought up a new wrinkle, a smart prank.

For a hundred years, nobody thought of taunting and poking an umpire in the snout with a soft glove. And now, nobody will again.

Madlock, one of the best and most underrared players in the game, had the brainstorm. He wishes more every day that he hadn't. His punishment probably was too harsh, but it also probably will stand.

As he says, the ramifications of the incident go "on and on." Fifty years from now, those 35 seconds likely will be part of the game's lore with Madlock's Silver Bats and his .375 average in last year's World Series are forgotten.

The bad rep of the longest suspension in history will be his legacy. Madlock deserves better. Unfortunately, he didn't think of that.