In 17 months as baseball commissioner, Peter Ueberroth's weakest link has been drugs. That changed Friday. The sermonizing, delaying and politicking took a back seat. The hard and practical decisions were faced and faced well.

To 11 players, whom he fined a total of more than $800,000, Ueberroth did as much as he could but also no more than he should.

For the other 650 players in baseball, as well as future generations of athletes, he set flexible, humane, yet strict policy guidelines that have a realistic chance for success.

Now, we have to see if it works.

Since The Pittsburgh Cocaine Trial last summer, Ueberroth -- bereft of policy -- was reduced to rhetoric. Like a tacky pol bashing easy targets, he preached The Decline of the West. At the winter meetings, Ueberroth suggested America should use AWACs at the borders to protect the underbelly of democracy.

When you can't solve your sport's problems, just save the world instead and maybe nobody will notice.

Such a stance probably was not taken by preference. Ueberroth is a man capable of understanding and valuing subtle distinctions. Though a determined middle-of-the-roader who may (despite his protests) have political ambitions, Ueberroth has considerable "negative capability" -- the gift for grasping and sympathizing with arguments of the most radically different factions.

As Ueberroth sat in his office late Friday afternoon, he was called to the phone every few minutes as owners, players and agents reacted to his decisions.

Once, shaking his head and laughing, he spread his arms, pointed in opposite directions and said, "You can say reaction's been extreme. Nobody's in the middle."

In the long run, Ueberroth may just win on drugs as he seems to have won on The Averted Strike of '85 and the hold-that-line Last Stand On Salaries this winter.

Why? Because he has an interlocking plan that works in several ways.

At the high-visibility level, he played the tough-guy J. Edgar Hoover role Friday afternoon. It sounds good to say that, for example, Keith Hernandez was fined $135,000 and that he'll be kicked out of baseball for a year if he ever tests positive for drugs again during his whole career.

We'll try to overlook the $1.2 million Mr. Hernandez will earn this year, not to mention the enormous break he got last year when he was given the choice of going state's evidence.

Ueberroth knows that a slap-on-the-wrist response -- like random testing, community service, but no heavy fine -- would have enraged many fans.

"The man in the street wants to see blood," Ueberroth said Friday night. "I'm not sure anything would have been tough enough to satisfy the average fan."

However, Ueberroth also knows that he probably had little chance to make a one-year suspension stand up in court. Bowie Kuhn couldn't nail Pascual Perez on that beef. Ueberroth might have ended up looking weak by acting too tough.

Ueberroth delt out the harshest punishment that he thought he could make stick.

One nightmare scenario remains. Will one of the 11 decide to get tough and say, "I'll agree to random testing because I've had drug problems in the past. But you have no right to fine me and you don't have the power to suspend me. I'll take you to court."

So far, nobody's that brave. Or dumb. "This is more than just a legal problem," said one source in the commissioner's office. "If any of these players fight such a reasonable decision, the public will clobber 'em."

And they should.

Enos Cabell had the right reaction: "I'm going to do whatever he wants me to do." Hernandez said, "I'm going to have to talk to my attorney."

Ueberroth also made some excellent distinctions Friday. First, he divided the players whose names surfaced in the Pittsburgh trial into three groups: the good, the bad and the ugly. The innocent, the users and the abusers.

In the process, he cleaned some of the mud off a couple of good names, like Gary Matthews and Dusty Baker. He made it clear that others, like Lee Lacy and Al Holland, weren't introducing half of their teams to coke dealers. And he added that "somebody was completely off base" in mentioning Willie Stargell.

As for those flashy fines to the hardcore boys, Ueberroth said, "We're asking players to take their own money, invest it in their communities in drug prevention programs and also help with 200 hours of service work. That seems like a plus times a plus times a plus."

Perhaps most important, Ueberroth has an overall strategy for how to chill out baseball's infatuation with cocaine.

First, test in the minor leagues to deter early use and establish that test results are truly confidential. That's already in place.

Next, use the current mood of public outrage as a lever to get a high percentage of players to agree to drug-testing clauses in their contracts. Ueberroth says that more than 300 players, perhaps as many as 350, already have such clauses. Some, like Bret Saberhagen, have even asked for such clauses so fans won't be suspicious of every bad performance.

"When 70 to 80 percent of the players have chosen to be tested, then the peer pressure will really start to work the other way," said Ueberroth. "We'll almost ensure that the others will come along. And the problem will be over."

Ueberroth, unlike some in sports, knows that illegal drug users don't come equipped with horns. Some are weak and follow the fad; some are thrill seekers; some just don't believe the medical bad news and think they won't get burned.

Ueberroth knows it's complex. That's why he's searched for a system that really does ensure total doctor-patient confidentiality. That's why there's no first-time punishment, just a long session with a drug expert. That's why a trace of pot and a heavy load of freebase aren't treated the same. And that's why Ueberroth says he doesn't even have a goal of 100 percent participation in drug testing. "You'll never have everybody agree to it," he said.

Above all, Ueberroth understands that a drug abuser has a huge problem that can't be solved in a few days. That's why, in the next few days, he will take all baseball's drug testing out of the hands of the clubs and run it under the umbrella of his own office.

That way, maybe the next Steve Howe won't be hustled back into uniform as soon as he's nominally clean.

If, in the next few years, we see a lot of mysterious unexplained injuries that sideline players for months, let's not pry and demand too many details.

It's probably just the next generation of Andujars and Parkers trying not to turn out like the last generation.