What the umpires should have done, as soon as they measured the pine tar, is tell Billy Martin to shaddup. Instead, they made Eve's mistake of listening to the snake's story and the world is still paying for it.

It is uncontestable, stipulated with pride by the great man himself, that Billy the Kid is a museum exhibit of boorish behavior. What he doesn't know about social structures is most everything worth knowing. Ask him about baseball, though, and he knows more than the snake knew about apples.

The idea here is that, yes, Martin knew George Brett's bat carried too much pine tar; and he also knew that the pine tar did not make the bat illegal. He gambled that the umpires were his inferiors at reading the rule book and so would fall into his trap of settling for two vague rules that seemed to make the bat illegal.

All the while, there in the rule book, Regulation 4.23 said excessive pine tar shall not be considered doctoring of a bat and is not reason for ejection or suspension. There was even precedent on George Brett's side, for in 1975 John Mayberry was allowed to keep two home runs that had been hit with too much pine tar on the barrel of the bat.

A moral philosopher would have let Brett's home run go uncontested. The rule book, albeit in obscure twists, certainly made the bat a legal weapon. And Billy the Kid almost certainly knew it. But Herr Steinbrenner orders Billy to win games, not make moral statements, and so Martin tempted the umpires with the fruit of irrelevant rules.

Poor Lee MacPhail. Every time the American League president gets involved with the Yankees, it's like one of those Chinese finger puzzles. The harder he wriggles to get loose, the tighter the thing gets.

MacPhail did the right thing by overruling his umpires and letting Brett's home run stand. (In admirable but misguided compassion for his umpires, MacPhail never quoted the Regulation 4.23 that would have prevented the whole mess. He said "the spirit of the rules" was to prevent doctoring of the bat to increase distance, which pine tar doesn't do.)

And the president did the necessary second step of ordering the completion of the game from a point with Kansas City leading, 5-4, with two outs in the top of the ninth inning at Yankee Stadium.

But what if only one team shows up for the game next Thursday?

"We're not pack mules," said Dave Winfield, presumably one of the Yankees who voted not to play because it would kill a day off and force them to work 31 straight days.

The contract between major league baseball and its players says no team must play more than 20 straight days. This is so the frail fellows, many making $2,000 a game, won't get all tuckered out. There is a loophole for baseball, however, if a league president orders a game played.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but isn't MacPhail now vulnerable to the same argument he used to allow Brett's home run--that "the spirit of the rules" precludes ordering the Yankees to play when they vote to take the day off promised in a contract?

Refusing to play would be hard-headed pettiness, even a self-inflicted wound, because the Yankees, if the game stands as is, would be 5-4 losers. Suiting up Thursday, they at least would have a chance to win. But hardheaded pettiness is a Yankee trademark, and it would be in character for them to make MacPhail squirm.

It would be great good fun to see the Yankees refuse to play. MacPhail then would have two options: (1) he could forfeit the game to Kansas City, at which time Billy the Kid and Herr Steinbrenner would be joined at the brain in mad-dog spluffering; or (2) MacPhail could reschedule the completion for the day before the playoffs begin.

MacPhail is a gracious man of good sense who must bolt awake at night seeing Yankee pin-stripes floating at the foot of his bed. If it's not Steinbrenner rattling his chains with ghosts of rhubarbs past, it's Billy the Kid kicking dirt onto his sheets.

Already this season MacPhail has done one investigation of Martin's behavior. He absolved Martin from charges he insulted a New York Times researcher on assignment in the Yankee clubhouse. MacPhail said Martin used only language customary to baseball clubhouses. Some witnesses said Martin's language would have shrunk a pirate.

It turns out that MacPhail must not care so much what Martin says as to whom he says it. Martin now is appealing a two-game suspension with the legal help of Roy Cohn, who 30 years ago was counsel to Joe McCarthy, a Yankee zealot of another stripe. Martin was suspended by MacPhail for calling an umpire "a stone liar."

The difference is that Martin insulted a journalist in one case and an umpire in the other. As MacPhail demonstrated in the pine tar war, only the league president can make umpires look bad and get away with it.