Ted Williams was wrong. The hardest job in sports isn't hitting a baseball. It's being a three-sport fan.

The chief culprit, as we'll see once more as autumn approaches, is king football, the game that demands almost total fidelity and saturation attention.

Or, put another way, who on earth is Azizuddin Abdur-Ra'oof?

And don't say Gesundheit.

First, back in the 1970s, we lost the three-sport athlete. As seasons lengthened, then overlapped, specialization became essential. The person who could play football, basketball and baseball, even in high school, became rare.

Now, in the '80s, the well-rounded spectator has become an endangered species, too. I'm a good Exhibit A.

From the age of 12, for the next 20 years, I could tell you more than anyone needed to know about all three "major" sports, pro and college. Sure, I was a sick puppy. But I was also a typical American breed.

In the last few years, however, it's all started to blur. My grasp is loosening. Doc, I'm startin' to fall.

Basketball isn't too bad. After all, the NBA has only three teams. Once you know the lineups of the Lakers, 76ers and Celtics, plus the leaders in points, rebounds and assists, you know the league better than some coaches.

NCAA hoops is a breeze, too. Read the preseason top 20 picks, learn all there is to know about the two dozen or so bona fide all-America candidates, then wait for the NCAA tournament. You can still feel in control. After all, there are only 100 players in the starting lineups of the whole top 20.

Baseball is a problem, sure, but not an insurmountable one. True, 26 big league teams are several too many and expansion will only worsen the problem. But at least there's no sane reason why anyone should be able to name a single player in either college or the minor leagues. I'm baseball writer No. 329 and I can't name 20.

No, you still don't have to be a leisure-ridden trust-fund case with a Phi Beta Kappa key to pull off the basketball-baseball straddle. Maybe you don't know as much about Orel Hershiser as you might have about a comparable hot young pitcher, like Johnny Antonelli or Tony Cloninger, by the time they'd won two dozen big league games.

But you don't feel overwhelmed.

With football, it's not so simple.

Everything about the game conspires to overload our circuits. Sports Illustrated recently published its annual football special issue: 209 pages.

And hardly a wasted word.

No other American sport has more players on the field at one time -- 11. And that's only one platoon. Add up offense, defense, special teams, kickers, punters and "situation" players and, to be a respectable fan of even one team you have to learn 30 or more names.

No other league has as many teams as the NFL -- 28. And, thanks to parity policies in everything from a communal draft to complete revenue sharing, the NFL does not even have any real dynasties left. Even in the division in which the Redskins compete, the NFC East, you could make a case for any of four teams as future champ. It's no fair. You can't cram on the Cowboys and be done with it. You gotta learn them Cardinals and Giants.

All this aggravation arrived before the U.S. Football League cluttered the pitcure. Sure, you could ignore the Useless. But don't you care what happens to Doug Flutie and Herschel Walker? Okay, don't answer.

Perhaps football's greatest crime is its worship of the college game. In an era of total data overload, when you are trying to fight through 10 magazines a month just so you will know which nations are at war, what to wear and how to keep your home computer from eating the software, NCAA football tries to lure you into a fact-maze of 40 elite teams, each of which dresses 100 players. What a break that scholarship limit was, right? Only 95 a team now.

It's not bad enough that these guys can play only four years (let's not say "graduate"). The turnover's bad enough. Now, the same teams aren't even in the top 10 every year.

Oh, sure, we all thought it was awful when Oklahoma, Alabama, Michigan, Nebraska, USC, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Texas and Penn State, the Gang of Nine, had a total stranglehold on talent in the '70s.

What we didn't know is that having to learn about Brigham Young, Oklahoma State and Illinois would be worse. College football was always a coach's medium. Now, you can't even keep up with them, let alone the players.

In self-defense, the '80s sports fan must decide how to specialize. Do you concentrate on one sport and follow it nationwide? Or do you opt for the provincial cop-out and study your local teams, and perhaps their leagues, while snoozing through everything else?

Once, we had no such dilemma.

Now, there's no good solution.

The best, among bad options, however, might be to teach football a lesson. Pick your favorite teams and players and root for them, to be sure. But let the sport as a whole take a hike.

In other words, burn this section.