Soft, shirt-sleeve breezes, a lavender sundown beyond the bleachers and the lush full green of summer grass were in evidence tonight for the first time this year in Memorial Stadium.

In other words, to make a bad night as miserably piquant as possible, the season of baseball arrived just as the baseball season may have been stopping.

On the upper deck by the rightfield foul pole, a huge orange and black sign read, "Please, Don't Strike'.'

"I have a sense of failure just being part of this," said Baltimore owner Edward Bennett Williams, watching his Orioles beat the Detroit Tigers in a game that had the quiet, resigned sadness that followers of this pastime customarily associate with early autumn.

"I never thought it would come to this," growled Doug Decinces, the American League player representative. "I just feel irritation."

As the big farewell crowd departed the stadium tonight, everything was familiar -- the echoing noise of children exploding cups with a stomp, the dimming of the tower lights, the gradual draining away of people until only the night watchmen and the cleanup crew remained.

But when they closed down the ballpark this night, here and everywhere else across the country, nobody knew when they could return.

"Nobody knows how long this strike is going to take," Ken Singleton said, assuming like everyone else here that no miracle in labor negotiations at the twelfth hour would prevent a player walkout starting Friday. "But if a strike is what the owners want, then that's what they're going to get. It's going to cost them and cost them big. That's what this is about."

Would Singleton, a $225,000-a-year, second-in-the-MVP-voting all star, hang in for a long strike?

"I'm fully prepared to sit out the entire season," he said.

"I hate to think about what this strike takes away from people," said Cy Young Award winner Mike Flanagan. "It's even surprised me how deeply this game touches people.

"The old, the handicapped, anybody who has sort of a hole in their life and needs something every day to fill it in a little bit, relies on baseball. Not just coming to the game, but the radio, the box scores.

"I almost never went to a Red Sox game growing up (in New England), but my dad and my friends and I listened to every game and read about every game. Some minor player like Dalton Jones -- I could imitate his swing and imagine his face and even thought I knew what kind of guy he was.

"You can't measure what this strike takes away from people."

Something approaching chagrin and guilt seemed to hang around this park tonight.

"I used to think that we (players) lived in a special world -- almost blessed by the innocence of playing a kid's game," said Detroit Manager Sparky Anderson. "I thought we were a little different, even a little better, though not through any merit of our own but just 'cause we were part of the game.

"But now," said Anderson, "I guess maybe we're just like everybody else.

"We've lost something tonight."

For more than a century, baseball's central quality, the enduring reason for its appeal, has been its daily faithfullness, its fidelity of response to its fans' affections.

Now, that continuity, that dependability, stood within hours of being broken in midseason -- something that had never happened before and can only have unforeseeable consequences.

"When the police or firemen go on strike, everybody cares," said Baltimore Manager Earl Weaver. "People know that they are the big losers and that they are in a kind of danger. It's something they can't ignore.

"This is different. People can go without baseball for a week or a month or maybe more and barely notice it. It just removes one option from the leisure activities they can pick.

"Everybody, on both sides, has to worry about what this is going to do to our industry."

Perhaps the most visibly upset person in Memorial Stadium was Ed Williams, who spoke to his players in a most unusual meeting before the game.

"I told them of my keen, keen disappointment in all of this," said Williams. "I especially feel for all the people who work around the park, but not on the field, who will be without their usual jobs.

"It would be an understatement to say that I am disappointed that I am a sort of junior member of the game's ownership. I cannot have the impact that I would like. You don't sing in the choir the first week you're in a new church.

"Both the players and the owners are, to my knowledge, reasonable and dispassionate people. Therefore, they ought to be able to come to a middle ground on what are purely economic issues.

"That tells me that at the core of this dispute, we have something which is unreasonable, irrational and emotional."

"This is a very sad day," said Oriole General Manager Hank Peters. "I sense that on both sides there is a good deal of pride, ego, face-saving or whatever you want to call it.

"But, the longer this strike lasts, the more it is going to hit both sides in the hip pocket. Pretty soon, the pocketbook is going to override pride. Then we'll have a settlement. Of course, I hope it is soon.

'Neither side," Peters emphasized, has any date after which it would be better prepared to weather the duration of the strike. Therefore, the opposing positions should not get further apart as we go along.

This statement would seem to undermine the position of owners' negotiator Ray Grebey, who has implied that the owners have strike insurance of some unspecified kind which would kick in after the first two weeks of a strike.

"Maybe one player in 10 can afford this," said former big leaguer Rex Barney, the public address announcer here. "Some of these guys can't get out of their own way once they get off a baseball field.

'I've had them come to me in my liquor business and ask for a job. They realize that they aren't prepared for much except playing baseball."

Baseball will soon discover some blunt home truths.

Its attraction is aesthetic not visceral, like pro football. No fan revolution will be precipitated by this strike.

This game of nuances may be stunned to discover how expendable it is, even in the heart of its own season.

Who really needs baseball?


Except the players and owners.

Those who come closest to needing the game, those deep-from-the-heart fans who study the game and have a lifelong feel for it, stayed in the stands here long after this game was over.

They sat and talked, looked at the field, which after a spring of storms that turned it into a swamp, finally had the proper crisp look of a diamond this evening.

The message from those procrastinating fans was simple and clear. Out of a crowd of 15,835 in the park, 500 or fewer found it impossible to leave after the last pitch of Scott Mcgregor's two-hitter.

The rest -- the great mass on whom the health of the sport is built -- already were in their cars and gone.

They were busy forgetting baseball.