As opening day approaches, the desire to predict is almost overpowering.

That's baseball's real rite, and right, of spring.

Never, not since 1868 when pro ball began, has the urge to prognosticate been greater. The reason is simple. For the past two springs, the game's central preseason prediction concerned whether there would be a players strike and how long it might persist. This year's return to blissfully innocent and harmlessly arrogant "Picks" is a sign we're back to baseball, not business, as usual.

We know better than to play seer, or, at least, we should. We've all been guilty of insight before. Every fan knows the feeling. The anticipations of winter turn into the prejudices of spring. The faint suspicions we first felt deep in the offseason begin coalescing, until we convince ourselves we've actually glimpsed the future.

We know baseball is mostly pitching, and pitchers are diabolically erratic.

We know offense is essentially lineup chemistry, and chemistry is unstable.

We know pennant races are endurance, and endurance is mostly escaping injury.

We know teams fluctuate from year to year far more than generally thought.

In other words, we know that baseball's coherence in retrospect and its lovely incoherence in advance are equal parts of the game's pleasure.

But, just once, before our preposterous crystal-gazing becomes real diamond-gazing, we long to light a cigar, cock the fedora over one eye and tell anybody who's fool or friend enough to listen just exactly what's gonna happen.

We've underlined last year's stats, dissected rosters, thumbed the dog-eared Baseball Encyclopedia for brilliant precedent, applied our pet theories and spent idle winter hours in testing imaginary summer scenarios against our intuitive sense of the way things actually happen. And, brother, we've got it figured out.

Then, if we're real lucky, come October, nobody'll remember a thing we said.

This season should be particularly rich in embarrassment for self-proclaimed experts. First, our backward glance at the '81 season is ready-made for misreadings; the disgraceful split-season, coupled with 60 days of midseason idleness, ensures that our conventional statistical barometers will be on the fritz.

For instance, what Dodger fan would be brazen enough to claim unequivocally that the L.A. world champions, owners of only the third-best record in their own league during the regular season, were truly the game's best team in '81?

And what of the AL champion Yankees? Their record last season was merely tied for ninth best in baseball. Then, after finishing 18th in baseball in runs scored, the Yankees let Reggie Jackson escape.

If a sport thrives on uncertainty, parity, competitive balance--call it what you will--then baseball is in blessed luck after its death-wish season. Except for five genuinely awful have-not teams that lost 60 percent or more of their games last season, there's not a franchise in baseball that can't cook up a half-plausible script for a pennant contention season.

For years, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn has warned that free agentry would create a rich-and-poor split that would eliminate competition. True, a small class of poor cousins exists now. However, no clique of great teams dominates the sport.

At least half of the sport's 26 teams begin the season as universally accepted bona fide contenders. Another half-dozen clubs feel, with justification, that they're only a player or two from winning their division.

In this deliciously tangled and wide-open mood, baseball starts its crucial season of rehabilitation. Never in recent years has it been so hard to make educated guesses. However, the only prognostications worth a cuss are those that are ambitious and opinionated. Nobody wants to listen to "if, if, if . . . "

So, here we go. The annual rite/right of prognostications appears on Page D4.

Hark, the voice of bias is loud in the land! Can baseball be far behind?