Hang 'em all by their thumbs

That's the cry that will go up across the land like lynch fever faster than Ray Grebey, Bowie Kuhn and Marvin Miller ever dreamed possible if the current baseball strike isn't settled in short order.

When a great nation is irritated by trivialities, it will seek out the source of its annoyance like a bear digging for lice. Countries do not take their idle-time amusements lightly; baseball may not be important, but to Americans it is one of the emotional essentials.

He who dallies with baseball toys with the nation's affections.

Countrymen, we always have been quick on the trigger, fast with the tar and feathers. Now, for once, such lawless measures are in order. Seldom has the public been offered such prime and worthy targets for retribution as Grebey, Kuhn and Miller.

Several years ago, baseball's owners, tired of being outsmarted by union boss Miller, hired Grebey. Ever since, Grebey has acted as though he thinks the whole baseball world is just his own private Tough Guy contest with Miller.

It appears that Grebey's strategy -- years in the making -- was to take out $50 million in strike insurance, build up a $15 million "mutual assistance" fund among clubs, then force the players into a strike in hopes of breaking or weakening their union.

But is that what baseball needs? Labor war with brass knuckles? From a purely tactical point of view, Grebey's methods have been almost as effective as they have been ugly.

He has succeeded in muzzling club owners with a gag rule that says they can be fined up to $500,000 for critizing the Player Relations Committee's official bargaining position. What's the PRC? Basically, it's Ray Grebey.

So, if like Edward Bennett Williams, the trial lawyer who bought the Baltimore Orioles, you pay $12 million for a baseball team, then decide you'd like to speak your mind on the issues that plague the sport, you're just out of luck. Say the wrong thing and it could cost you a half-mil.

Or, like Harry Dalton, the general manager in Milwaukee, you invest 30 years of your life in baseball. Then one day you decide you'd like to act as the voice of reason; you say, "I hope the owners are really looking for a compromise and not a victory." That costs you a $50,000 fine.

The whole purpose of Grebey's stonewalling, hard-line approach seems to this observer to be designed to turn the players' common decency and concern for the game against them. It's worked: in the last year, every particle of labor conciliation has come from the players.

While the players have given significant ground -- even acquiescing to the necessity for compensation -- Grebey has continued to run his bluff, seemingly pretending that he was orchestrated a strike the players can't win.

Those owners who would just as soon see Grebey go away have decided to hold their tongues and let him either win the day or hang himself.

If this strike is settled within a week or so, and on terms the owners like, then Grebey will be a hero with the brass.

But what if the players hang tough? What if they won't budge? Are they really willing to sit out the whole season for a principle?

Then the owners are up the creek and may have to use Grebey as a paddle. No paltry $50 million of insurance is going to soften the blow of a four-month strike to an industry that does a $400 million annual gross.

If baseball thinks it has financial problems now, wait and see what they'll be if this battle is still raging on opening day of 1982.

And what of Bowie Kuhn?

Baseball's commissioner has remained incommunicado for months. As always, Kuhn says he is working behind the scenes, trying to bring the parties together. This is a joke. Despite his protestations of independence, Kuhn's perspectives, motives and preferences on labor issues are identical in all pertinent aspects to those of management.

The worst thing that can be said of Kuhn is that in times of supreme crisis during his tenure as commissioner, he has, up to this point, done absolutely nothing.

If Grebey and Kuhn are easy targets, it is harder to draw a head on Miller because he's such a master of public relations and mass-media manipulation. Miller is, after all, a folk hero, the man who freed America's last slaves.Just 10 years ago, the average major league salary was $31,000. Now, the minimum salary is more than that. That's Marvin Miller's doing entirely. In retrospect, it is obvious that Miller forced baseball to become more equitable.

However, Miller may be a better man for a battle than he is for compromise; he has fought the owners so long, so bitterly and so personally that now he can't bring himself to believe that the owners' poormouthing finally might be true.

All Miller's counterproposals are subtle burrs placed under the owners' saddles. Even the players' latest "pooled compensation" plan is just one more deft Miller ploy for shelling what the owners say they want (equity) and what they obviously say (lowered salaries). In short, Miller is in danger of paying more attention to his grandstanding, like getting an "unfair labor practice" complaint against the owners from the National Labor Relations Board, than he is in hammering out a partial compensation system that might work.

Miller doesn't want to look bad in the history books, or appear to have stepped backward and given up any of his union's gains. Might someone not say that the old Lion's teeth have grown dull?

Miller still has his dream. He wants to see the 'Malley's Dodger books. He wants to know just how much money really was gouged from the players all those years. And, like any champion, he wants to go out undefeated, especially when the opponent is Grebey.

In short, all three of these central figures may be too close to the process of which they are a part to see how it fits into a larger picture.

Whenever sport produces such a tempest, some wit is certain to say, "Two billion Chinese couldn't care less."

In this case, that isn't strictly true. Baseball is so inextricably associated with America that what happens to the game is part of our collective national mythology. This week, for instance, a reporter from a newspaper in Communist China called The Washington Post and requested that someone explain the baseball strike to him for his readers.

"Explain, please," said the man from China.

"That won't be easy," he was told."Even Americans don't understand this strike."

"Very interesting," he said. "How much do the workers earn who are on strike?"

"Well, one of them, Dave Winfield, makes about $10,000 a day."

"Repeat, please," he said. "You mean a year?"

"No," he was told, "$10,000 for every game he plays. And the average player makes more than $1,000 a game."

"Oooohhhhh," said the man from China.