If his bosses two days ago had asked themselves a slightly altered version of what Ronald Reagan asked American voters two years ago -- is our game better now than when he took office in 1969? -- Bowie Kuhn still would be commissioner of baseball.

The civil sport is flourishing. More people care more deeply than ever. But the minority of owners who skuttled his re-election might have posed another question -- did Kuhn have anything significant to do with this welcome wave of enthusiasm? -- and answered it the way a lot of us have over the years: no.

Lots of irony and intrigue to Bowie's knifing. In Chicago, with its history of odd electoral twists, where millions would vote but only Mayor Daley's was said to really matter, Kuhn got a 70 percent approval rating, and lost.

He will not bump the unemployment number higher for long when his term expires in 10 months. He might even succeed himself, we're told, if his loyal majority has enough clout. Clearly, baseball is less complex and more appealing on the field than in the board room.

Its top job, as has been evident during Kuhn's stewardship, also is among the most overrated in the world. Although not quite as useless as first base coach, the baseball commissioner still is too hamstrung, too tied to the men who hire him, to be as dominant as the title implies.

Until the commissioner of any sport gets a sort of split paycheck, until he is paid equally by the owners and players, I'm not going to take him very seriously. Give me one compelling reason to. Kuhn slapped some owners' wrists, when he had no other choice, and undoubtedly was forceful and influential behind the scenes.

But when the commissioner was needed most, during the 50-day strike last year, Kuhn was seldom seen; when he should have been most powerful, he seemed almost impotent; when the concept of his office suggested neutrality, he was blatantly biased.

Nearly anyone else would have acted similarly.

That's the nature of the office.

The same sorry scene is being played right now, with Pete Rozelle in the embarrassing role of public puppet. He couldn't keep the games going either. During this NFL players' strike, Rozelle's esteem has plummeted; his image as a polished persuader capable of bending anyone, or any issue, his way unalterably tarnished.

To the naive fan, Rozelle should have been hammering both sides toward a settlement long before the strike deadline, cuffing them into day-and-night sessions until a contract was negotiated, demanding binding arbitration as a final solution.

Who needs outside mediation when football already has a commissioner? One who many claim has made the NFL the most popular, most successful and richest sport on earth.

Because the commissioner is in fact all but powerless in perilous times, his office much more style than substance. Instead of being the NFL's ultimate referee during its toughest game, Rozelle is one of us spectators.

Neutral Pete, the players sarcastically call him.

Helpless Pete is closer to the truth.

Kuhn knows the feeling.

Paid to be partisan, to maximize profits, to keep mavericks in line, Kuhn let the World Series be taken largely from sunshine into prime time. He insisted free agency would be the bane of baseball; he meddled into Charlie Finley's and other owners' free-market affairs whenever mountains of money were involved.

Small wonder seven of 10 owners still love him.

The year Kuhn became commissioner, the Baltimore Orioles lost the World Series to the Mets; the year he was voted out, those savvy, penurious, tradition-bound Orioles came within a game of making the playoffs. If Kuhn had been as horrified over the Don Sutton trade to the Brewers as he had been over others -- and canceled it -- the O's might well have been in the Series.

The free-spending Mets had the fourth-worst record in baseball last year.

I have no argument with Kuhn's quick career summation: "I have been guided by conscience, tried to act in a moral way. You can't ask much more of a man than that. The game has come light years (from when he became commissioner), and I take some small credit for that. I have a commendable record."

He seems a decent, conservative man who might well have been inspirational had his job description allowed that. As Texas Rangers owner Eddie Chiles said: " . . . I think the commissioner system has outlived its usefulness."

Probably no owner, Chiles included, will push for an omnipotent, unprejudiced, man paid by all of baseball to genuinely preside over the best interests of baseball.

In college, still mostly innocent about sport, I once was asked one of those cosmic questions impossible to answer: what do you want to be doing 20 years from now? I wasn't sure what I wanted to be doing in 20 minutes, let alone 20 years, but I seriously said:

"Be commissioner of baseball."

Twenty years later, I realize a person should set higher goals.