Where is Bowie Kuhn now, when his voice is needed?

Monday evening, the Milwaukee Brewers flashed a scoreboard message to their fans that they had just acquired pitcher Don Sutton, who has won 253 games and may someday be in the Hall of Fame, in return for three minor-league players.

The crowd responded with a huge ovation. It knew that the Brewers, with that trade, probably won themselves a division flag and maybe a World Series, too.

Milwaukee already has the best record in baseball. Now, it has Sutton, who had a 13-8 record and the eighth-best ERA (3.00) of any NL starter for fifth-place Houston.

Then, yesterday, the California Angels announced that Tommy John -- who has 233 major-league victories, who has won more games in the previous three seasons than any other AL pitcher and who pitched a three-hit shutout in his last start -- had been acquired from the New York Yankees for -- you guessed it -- three minor-league players.

Baseball has seen countless late-August stretch-drive trades, from Johnny Mize to Elston Howard. Nonetheless, never has a player as excellent as Sutton been grabbed for a pennant race push while he was still in his prime. Sutton's stats allow only one interpretation: he's having one of the dozen best pitching seasons in baseball.

Why should this Sutton trade, in particular, and the John trade to a slightly lesser degree, recommend themselves to Kuhn's attention?

For reasons analogous to those Kuhn gave for voiding lopsided, big-money deals in 1976, '78 and '81.

Remember Charlie Finley's fire sale in '76 when he tried to "trade" three players for $4 million? Kuhn said it would be "bad for the competitive balance." In '78, Kuhn refused to let Vida Blue be traded for the Reds' Dave Revering, plus $1.5 million. Again, the commissioner felt that money, rather than an even swap of talent, was the issue; Kuhn set a $400,000 limit on the cash in any trade. In '81, Kuhn said the Yanks couldn't grab Pittsburgh's Jason Thompson for small fries and cash in excess of $400,000.

In other words, when a big-name player is about to go to a team with serious pennant chances and the deal, on its face, does not involve players of equal value, but does involve lots of money, Kuhn steps in.

So, where is he?

He's in South Korea. He left, by coincidence, the day before the trade and can't be reached for comment. Thirteen hours time difference. Sleeping.

"The commissioner is aware of the trade," said his office yesterday.

Then he must be aware that, according to Milwaukee owner Bud Selig, the Brewers will be assuming close to $1 million worth of Sutton's future contract.

The Angels, too, will be assuming the balance of John's multiyear, multimillion-dollar Yankee contract.

Shouldn't Kuhn address himself to one fundamental question: what's the difference between a club paying another club $1 million in a deal and a club saving another million in a trade?

On the balance sheets, there's no difference.

The big money is there, just as in the other deals, but it's been metamorphosed from "cash" into "future salary." Isn't $1 million still $1 million, no matter what ledger column it's in?

There are other considerations.

Houston owner John McMullen, after buying an NHL franchise, has a cash-flow problem. He controls 33 percent of the Astros, whose $359,000-per-player payroll is the highest in the NL. However, McMullen also has disgruntled stockholders, the same folks who revolted against him two years ago when he fired his general manager, Tal Smith. If, in November, those stockholders vote to depose him as chairman -- and there's a chance of it -- McMullen's only way to control the club would be to exercise an option to buy another 18 percent of the franchise.

Also, McMullen is one of the four NL owners opposed to Kuhn's being rehired as commissioner. However, one pro-Kuhn NL president at this month's owners' meeting in San Diego said, "Houston is a changeable vote."

If, by Nov. 1, McMullen decides to favor Kuhn, it could save the commissioner's job.

Let's make a couple of points clear:

* The Brewers have made a completely legitimate trade; even Oriole General Manager Hank Peters says, "It's just another page from the book of what the Yankees did for decades . . . This is checkbook baseball, but it's also smart baseball . . . The Brewers are gambling on winning now, but they've also mortgaged a little of their future."

* The Astros aren't breaking any rules. In fact, last Aug. 31, when they were in a race, they pulled a similar deal, but in reverse. They got veteran Phil Garner from Pittsburgh for three minor leaguers. Nobody blinked at that. One of those unknown minor leaguers turned out to be Johnny Ray, who may be NL rookie of the year for the Pirates.

* Milwaukee owner Selig says flatly that the Sutton deal and the trades Kuhn vetoed in the past are "radically different." As for this trade's relationship to McMullen's future vote on Kuhn, Selig says, "I couldn't imagine two more unrelated issues."

The question is: should the commissioner allow two exceptional pitchers -- one still performing at his peak and another near it -- to be traded to contenders in midpennant race in exchange for as yet unnamed minor leaguers ?

It's a genuine puzzler. How good are the minor leaguers? Does $1 million in future contractual obligation constitute "cash" in such a trade? Do these deals, similar in type to dozens in baseball history, have enough extra dimensions, enough unanswered questions, enough impact on the sport, that one or both should be canceled? Or, at the least, examined and discussed?