The fairest punishments are self-inflicted.

That is why, for baseball fans, there is such sad amusement in watching the sport's hysterical hierarchy beat itself about the head with its own bat.

The Three Stooges couldn't poke each other in the eye and rattle themselves on the skull any better than the game's tarnished brass.

At this hour, baseball is cooking up a new way to whitewash the mistakes it made when rushing into a quick-fix split season.

Soon, too soon, the game will announce a ludicrous "adjustment" in its new playoff format so that "the integrity of the game" is safeguarded.

Do we laugh, rage or cry ?

The game's dubious brain trust refuses to admit its money-making fiasco called a second season does not work and can't be "adjusted" so that it will.

The thing is wrong and the more you fiddle with it, the wronger it gets.

Just two weeks ago, baseball was the only sport with every structural advantage: meaningful regular-season games, great pennant races, a streamlined championship series, and a dramatic World Series.

How fair. How elegant. How like baseball.

Now, the bleeding sport is a shambles.

What the hell, if you'll pardon the expression, is a "preplayoff series?" Or a "second-half champion?" Or a "split-season format." Or a "wild card with the second-best overall percentage in its division."

Or -- and this is the one we'll likely have dished up soon as the cure-all -- a "wild-card team with the second-best record in the second-half."

Second best, indeed.

That's what the sport has become and what it may well remain. Baseball is in danger of going from national pasttime to national laughingstock.

Baseball thinks the worst that can happen is for a team to dump a game.

How off base can it be?

Something more damaging than a "forfeit" is happening right now.

No, it's not that baseball is making a public clown of itself. Or that it's indicting its own intelligence. That has been done before.

Far worse, the game is exposing the venality of its motives, while also showing the lack of either strength or conviction among its leaders.

While trying to preserve its "integrity" on the field as a game, baseball has dramatically wounded its integrity off the field as an industry.

For two weeks, baseball has repeatedly faced a choice between admitting its mistakes and cutting its losses for the good of the sport, or bullheadedly barging forward as though it could brazen out its blunders.

Guess which path has been followed.

What baseball should have done was simple and remains so.

What it has done and, especially, why it was done, is ugly.

Many in baseball have long wanted to crawl further into TV's pocket by expanding to an eight-team playoff. This smashed season offered an excuse to introduce the idea on a one-time-only, how-can-you-resist-such-a-deal basis.

Also, split seasons have a history of revitalizing minor leagues.

So, a greedy marriage of two money-making plans was born. Why not combine a split-season and expanded playoffs? The motive was simple: use every gimmick that had been saved for a rainy day. Of 26 teams, 21 jumped on the bandwagon.

Baseball now wants its fans to believe that nobody checked to see if the wagon had wheels; the current nightmares are all supposedly a big surprise.

This just isn't true.

At the owners' meeting, every loophole was common knowledge. For two hours, owners gabbed in the Chicago O'Hare Hilton lobby; many knew about the chance of thrown games to get into the playoffs, or the likelihood -- which basball still hasn't faced -- that a double champion could lose games to help pick its preferred playoff opponent. And so forth.

Most bumptious were the new White Sox owners, who seriously believed they were going to ride into that moguls' confab, present a better plan and walk out having saved the day. Instead, they walked out looking like they'd spent a week in a revolving door. "I didn't even get to raise my hand for a motion," said Eddie Einhorn, who thought a $10-million investment entitled you to speak.

Baseball's negotiating committee, having created a plan motivated by greed, forced the proposal on its owners out of vanity. "We were told, 'It's either continue the season, or accept the split-season proposal exactly as written in the settlement,' " says one GM. "There was no discussion."

In other words, baseball couldn't face the embarrassment of going back to the union and, in a sense, pleading with the players to save them from their own miscalculations.

Having gotten in this fine mess, baseball still can't find an easy way out. And an easy way is still what it's looking for.

The simple solutions can't be adopted because baseball doesn't have the guts.

First, why not play out the season as it was?

Unthinkable. That wouldn't make any gimmick money.

Second, why not award a bye to a double champion, like any sane league?

That's impossible because baseball teams always vote for self-interest, not the good of the game. It's a tradition in a traditional game. Not nearly enough teams think a "bye" system would be good for them at this point. So, it's out.

Also, with "byes" there might not be eight teams in the brave new playoffs and that could mean less TV money.

Finally, the players union would scream at any revised system that didn't have the extra cash for players that comes from a full eight-team playoff. The owners voted it in; don't bet the players would give it back.

Third, why not go back to the 2-month-old proposal that the first- and second-place teams in each division at the end of the normal, regular season have a playoff against each other?

This plan has one major weakness.

It's perfect.

You'd eliminate "thrown" games. You'd have the precious eight-team playoff. The best teams in each division would advance, so there'd be no inequity.

And, best bonus of all, the split season would be killed.

What the majors didn't know but what Baltimore General Manager Hank Peters, president of the minors for five years, tried to explain, was that for the first month of a "second season" fans yawn just as they do in April. The second season only heats up once a "race" has taken shape, which is after 30 or 40 games.

"We killed the great races it took two months to create and replaced them with a 26-way tie at 0-0," said Peters. "Now, it'll take us a month to build new races that probably won't be as good as what we had."

In short, a 50-game second season isn't a race; it's a meaningless stampede.

The reason baseball won't follow this course is that it would have to take back the "championships" it awarded for the first half. "So what if they wail?" says Peters. "You're only taking back something they never earned."

Finally, as one National League president says, "One reason the new format was so popular was that the two biggest TV markets -- New York and L.A. -- were guaranteed to be in it. Those are tough cities to take anything back from."

So what will baseball do, since it won't or can't do what's right?

The plan Commissioner Bowie Kuhn and the league presidents have discussed and currently favor, and which they will almost certainly announce today, is an ingenius stopgap to avoid the most blatant "integrity" snares. Instead of a wild-card spot going to the team with the second-best winning percentage for the whole year, it will go to the team that finishes second in the second half.

This, of course, does not address the fundamental problems. It's a Band-Aid on a slashed wrist.

The split season will continue to harm attendance. Teams that win both halves will still suffer the injustice of being chucked into a mini-playoff. The team with the second-best overall record in baseball could still not be excluded from an eight-team playoff. And a team can still have more motive for losing a late-season game than winning it.

Finally, it just isn't as fair to allow the second-place second-season team into the playoffs as it is to take the second-best overall team. If it were, then that's what would have been done in the first place.

All this mumbo jumbo is, of course, unnecessary. Baseball had an ideal setup before the strike. All the game had to do was leave itself alone.

But it couldn't.

And now, as a nation both chuckles and mourns, baseball is paying its self-inflicted price.