Their mothers and union bosses love them as much as ever, but what the fans think of professional athletes isn't so certain.

As much can be said of the barons of sport, those team owners who by their profligate spending have rendered obsolete Babe Ruth's joke in 1930 when someone complained that the Babe made more money than President Hoover. It was $80,000 against $75,000. "Why not?" Ruth said. "I had a better year than he did."

In the winter of 1981, a tall young man named James Edwards, a pro basketball player of modest reputation and slight prospect, was given $800,000 to work for the Cleveland Cavaliers. This is four times the salary of Ronald Reagan. A sign of basketball's hee-hawing absurdity, it also is one more piece of the mad puzzle that makes so many sports fans want to kick a millionaire in the ankles.

A baseball strike lasted 50 days last summer.

A football strike went 57 days this fall.

A basketball strike may be coming soon.

Can you stand it?

"Your initial reaction is disgust with all sides," said Harvey Larsen, 68, of Annapolis, a retired government employe who watches a lot of sports on television and goes to an occasional college game. "Some people will say they'll never watch another game. But they will. We still want our sports. It's just like you love your wife. You'll argue, but you'll forget it."

"I don't think sports can take too many of these things," said Edward Bennett Williams, owner of the Baltimore Orioles and minority partner in the Redskins. "The baseball damage has been repaired, but the football strike did terrible damage. Workers in the cities and the fans resented the impasse bitterly. They will come to look at sports with a jaundiced eye. Enough is enough. We can't tax the patience of the fan one more time."

"Sports is part of the American culture, and we, the owners and the players, have done it damage," said Jack Kent Cooke, the Redskins' owner. "You should have seen the euphoria at the settlement this week. At a dinner party with 40 people, I was again reminded of the powerful hold the Redskins have on this city. There's nothing like it anywhere, not even for the Dodgers in Los Angeles. I don't want to see anything interrupt that flow of love and adulation."

Baseball's first in-season strike interrupted a summer, as fall was jostled from its rhythms by the National Football League's strike. And now, in the NBA, we see one more sign that we have gone through Alice's mirror into a kind of sports funny farm where players say, "I want $1 million," and owners say, "Not less than $2 million, take it or leave it."

There's no need to go into the bizarre details that could lead to a basketball strike, but three points are illustrative of the fix pro sports are in. Some owners may want the players to strike, because a strike would cost less money than paying the players their average $200,000. The owners want players to agree to salary limits, for another foolish thing, and also want players to hand over money they get for shoe endorsements.

Is that shoe clause a joke?

"They're serious," said Larry Fleischer, the boss of the basketball players' union since its creation in the late 1960s. "It is a joke, but the owners are serious."

One of these men wanting the shoe money then gives Moses Malone a $13.2 million contract covering six years. That's $26,829 a game for Malone, which is, for sure, more than Ronald Reagan's $548 a day, but the president hasn't been able to slam-dunk for years.

A kid growing up in a little Illinois corn town didn't care how much money Stan Musial was paid. All that mattered was that The Man hit baseballs forever for the Cardinals while the kid listened on a radio he sneaked under the bedcovers. There were heroes in those days, not conglomerates, and now that the kid is losing his hair he wonders if all this stuff -- contract disputes, legalistics, million-dollar salaries, strikes every season -- could cause the unraveling of the thread that ties a fan to his games.

So he calls another Midwesterner, a couple of years younger, from Missouri by way of Princeton University, the New York Knicks and the U.S. Senate. As a pro basketball player, Bill Bradley helped create the union that Fleischer led to significant advances. The baseball union started about the same time, and football's stirred to life just after 1970.

"Here's a hypothesis for which I have no evidence." Bradley said. "If people once looked at sports as they would look, say, at an oak tree that lent permanence to their lives, if that tree were rooted in place and familiarity, then Mickey Mantle moving from the Yankees to the Red Sox would make as much sense as that oak tree moving from New York to Boston.

"To the sense that sport served that function of permanence, it is gone today.

"But if we are to accept the idea that sports is not the oak tree in the backyard, then sports is subject to all the complexities of society. There is no reason to believe that as our society gets more complex that sports should not get more complex, too."

The question, the senator said, should not be whether anyone is worth $13.2 million even if he gets every rebound in the free world. The question, more properly, is what effect the money has.

"What is the quality of play?" Bradley said. "If life is more mobile today, if it is not that oak tree, if we are looking for a quality resolution, then the gray areas grow. We want to see how an athlete performs under pressure. The quality of the work is all that counts. When you get the charge that this business-infringement affects play to dilute quality, that's where the fundamental question is."

One man's answer to that question, from 15 years looking, is that the games are better than ever. To deny it is to deny the biological fact that this country now has bigger, stronger people and more of them. Not only that, but there is more circumstantial evidence that striving for huge salaries raises the level of play than there is that attaining such wealth diminishes a man's ability.

The kid from Illinois, by then 37, met Stan Musial once. He decided to try a test.

"If they'd had free agency when you were playing, Stan," he asked, "would you have left the Cardinals?"

"Sure," Musial said. "They make big money now."

So maybe it was like this when we were kids; only we didn't know it. We were innocents yet. All that mattered was what these men did on the field. We dreamed of doing the same things.

Once past innocence, when we know the funny paper isn't real and Stan the Man would have jilted the beloved Cardinals for money, the sports fan's problem is keeping the real world from spoiling his pleasure in the game. Although he knows innocence is gone, he liked it so much he will be satisfied with a clear memory of it. Don't bother me, he tells the sportswriters, with the cynical details of adult life; just let the guys play the games.

"I wish we in management and you in the press had not forgotten the game itself," said Bill Veeck, the former baseball impresario. "The game itself is virtually unchanged, but that's not what you hear about. You hear about this extraneous stuff more than ever."

Yet baseball's record attendance in this season after the strike -- more than 43 million customers -- is evidence that almost nothing can alienate the fan for long. As Jack Kent Cooke suggested, these kids' games so profoundly touch our emotions that they will survive almost anything.

"I'll make you a prediction," Edward Bennett Williams said. "On Sunday, when the football games start again, you'll probably see the fans wave handkerchiefs or boo -- some sign of protest. But in 15 minutes, they'll be cheering. Though it's a passing thing, we owners and players must do something to stop this from happening again. We must realize we are vested with the public interest."

Whether the fans' protestations are a passing thing or not, many observers believe sports today is on the threshold of a self-inflicted financial calamity that will change the face of our pro leagues.

Bud Selig, the president of the Milwaukee Brewers, said during the World Series, "Baseball is headed for tragedy. Of our 26 teams, maybe 19 or 20 are in terrible financial shape. If it keeps going this way, there will be franchises folding."

Basketball's 23 teams are so shaky that Veeck said, "I wonder how many NBA teams you couldn't buy." The same words might apply to the National Hockey League. Only in the NFL is no one crying bankruptcy.

It wasn't this way when we were kids.

Was it?

Or maybe we just didn't notice that our heroes were exploited by owners who held them in economic bondage. Until we read history books, we didn't know that in 1875 the Boston Red Stockings' four best players skipped across the country to play for the Chicago White Stockings. These players were reviled in the press as "revolvers," "shooting stars" and "seceders."

In 1890 a players' rebellion against the "reserve" clause that bound a player to one team forever led to the creation of the short-lived Players League.

In 1911, the Giants and Athletics, playing a World Series, threatened to go on strike if they weren't given a share of the Series motion picture revenue.

Until the players' current union was formed in 1968, owners succeeded in every assault against players' freedom, even convincing the Supreme Court, in a decision that still prevails, to exempt baseball from normal antitrust laws because, after all, baseball is a sport and not a business.

The day is coming when it will be bigger business than ever. For $7 a month, cable-TV subscribers in New York can see every Islanders game, every Nets game, 40 Yankee games, 50 Mets games, 20 Devils games and every horse race every day from three tracks. The Islanders and Nets signed 30-year deals with Sports Channel; the Yankees signed up for 15 years for a reported $100 million.

"Who's paying the freight?" said A. Ray Smith, owner of the Louisville Redbirds team that this year set the minor league baseball attendance record of 868,418. Smith's top ticket price was $3.50, and next season he's lowering prices.

"The fans are who get nicked in this thing," Smith said. "I can get away with cheap tickets, because I don't have million-dollar contracts to pay. But if somebody told me I could make $2 million by giving a player $1 million, I wouldn't do it. The owners have asked for every damn bit of this trouble. The fans have to pay that $2 million, and you can't keep gouging them. . . . this merry-go-round's gotta stop."

It wasn't like this when we were kids. Was it? It probably was.

"Say what you will, gentlemen of the league," the boss wrote to the big league baseball players, "you must proportionately lower your salaries. Catchers and pitchers deserve more than players at other positions, but $1,000 is good pay even for them, and $100 a month is sufficient for the other positions."

Henry Chadwick wrote that letter 105 years ago.