From the sky there came a thunderous boom -- booOOMMM! -- and God's bedraggled creatures in Busch Stadium sent up a cheer of thanks for the rainstorm falling on their heads. They knew a good thing when it drowned them. And on this afternoon when Phil Niekro's knuckleball was knuckling for the Braves, the Cardinals' best hope was to hear Noah hammering away.

In the first game of the National League championship series, St. Louis trailed Atlanta, 1-0, with one out in the fifth inning. Two more outs made it an official game if the rain kept coming. The way it looked, the Cardinals never would score against Niekro.

The umpires stopped play with one out in the fifth. The National League president, Charles Feeney, called the game off after a 2 1/2-hour wait in a deluge that left ponds on the artificial turf. The St. Louis manager, Whitey Herzog, said he was surprised by Feeney's decision; the Atlanta manager, Joe Torre, said the postponement would not have happened in a regular-season game.

At 8:11, two hours after Feeney's decision, the rain was gone. With vacuum sweepers to clear the water from the field, play could have started up again another hour later. If all anybody cared about was getting two more outs to make this an official game, it could have been accomplished easily.

Even if they didn't start up again until 9 o'clock, that certainly is early for a night game already into the fifth inning. If it rained again, there would be plenty of time to wait it out in order to be fair to both teams. No problem.

So why stop so early?

Feeney cited "a bad forecast for the rest of the night."

Probably the president spoke of the weather forecast. The television forecast showed that at 7:30 local time, ABC-TV would begin its telecast of the American League championship series game in Anaheim. It would have been crowded on the airwaves, what with ABC also doing the game here.

"The other game would have been on," Herzog said after running through a scenario that had the game here being resumed after 9 o'clock. "That's some of (the reason for postponement), sure."

"I don't think the game would have been stopped that quick in the regular season," said Torre, whose team was deprived of a midgame lead with its best pitcher working. "I'm not bitter. But if five innings had been played (making it an official game), we'd still be sitting here. It wouldn't be called off."

The umpire-in-chief, Billy Williams, said he stopped the game with one out in the fifth because "I didn't want anybody to criticize the league officials or the umpiring crew, saying we had them play through a downpour for two outs and then call it."

Williams said he was trying to be "as fair as I could have been to both sides."

He was. It was a good time to stop. The rain, only a slight drizzle when Williams called Atlanta off the field, immediately became so heavy it was hard to see the outfield fences.

Whether Feeney should have postponed a game on artificial turf at 6:11 p.m. is another question. For while it will be nice for the paying customers to come back in dry clothes for a full game, the postponement may have a significant effect on the outcome of the series.

It took away a good performance by St. Louis' best pitcher, Joaquin Andujar, who most likely will not be able to pitch again until a fourth game.

Because Niekro (17-4 this year, Atlanta's best) is a knuckleballer whose work strains him very little, he likely will pitch again in Saturday's third game. So before Andujar works, the series may be over.

Historians studying the scorebooks years from now may see that Atlanta swept St. Louis in three games back in '82. They'll see that Joaquin Andujar, the Cardinals' ace that year with a 15-10 record, didn't pitch at all. If they ask why not, the answer will be, "Because Chub Feeney said so."

The desires of the television networks, unspoken or only imagined by a league president, ought not interfere with competition on the field. Yet only five years ago at Philadelphia, in a rainstorm that lasted more than an hour, Feeney sat in dripping silence while the Dodgers and Phillies finished out a prime-time show.

And now the league president, with two games about to bump into each other on the airwaves, has called off a game when he had hours to wait before a decision absolutely had to be made.