If the phone rings and you're offered a job as general manager of a major league baseball team, just say no. If you're offered ownership of a team, ask "Which one," then think twice. Here's why.

Last night free agent Darryl Strawberry signed a five-year contract for $20.25 million with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Thus, baseball established its benchmark for superduperstar reimbursement, circa 1991.

In a parting shot symbolic of the times, Strawberry accused his former employers, the New York Mets, of never making a serious offer and "just letting me walk away." Strawberry, you see, didn't think the Mets' "best offer" last week -- $15 million for four seasons -- met his definition of significant.

Last week catcher Darren Daulton, a .206 career hitter until he had a solid second half of the '90 season, got a three-year, $6.75 million contract so he wouldn't become a free agent. That signing reestablished the astronomical price of mediocrity in baseball. The Orioles, for instance, already have lapsed into a coma at the thought that they may have to offer catcher Mickey Tettleton a comparable contract for the pleasure of watching him strike out 150 times.

Soon, it's expected that owners will agree to pay the players about $280 million as indemnification for their dirty dealings ("collusion") in '85, '86 and '87. If the two sides reach such an out-of-court settlement, Don Fehr's nickname should become John Beresford Tipton, because he's going to be handing out a lot of a cashier's checks for one million dollars.

In addition, the collusion settlement may turn 16 players, including Gary Gaetti and Jack Clark, into "new-look" free agents. Baseball already had 95 players eligible to auction themselves. Just what the game needed -- 16 more guys who can keep the contract they now hold (if they consider themselves sufficiently cozy and overpaid) or declare themselves free agents.

Finally, baseball's TV ratings were poor this season. The World Series ratings were the second worst in history. The era of billion dollar network TV deals -- like CBS's four-year albatross -- is dead. (Somewhere at CBS there must be a "Wanted: Dead or Alive" poster of Peter Ueberroth.)

No matter how you define the terms recession and depression on a national basis, baseball owners should understand that they're already in a recession that could become an industry-wide depression if they don't show considerably more self-restraint in this offseason than they did last winter.

No wonder the chivalrous old sport has finally gotten around to expanding by two teams: The game is going to need that $190 million in entry fees.

"Expansion fees?" Houston owner and expansion- committee member John McMullen said yesterday. "We'll give it all away immediately. Every dollar that comes into this game flows right through it" to the players.

"I started off in this sport as a capitalist but now I'm a communist. I never thought I'd hear myself say it, but I'm in favor of revenue sharing {among owners} and revenue participation" with players.

If baseball is lucky, that's where the game will end up someday. Let the owners follow the NFL model and share their revenues far more equally. Now, the richest team operates from an annual base of about $110 million while the Pittsburgh Pirates figure they'll gross only $35 million in a good year.

As for the union, the only way to beat it is to stop trying. Invite the players inside, NBA style, and co-opt them. Just say: "Here are the books. What percentage do you want?" (Some owners might settle for an annual profit smaller than the salary of a top player.)

The events of recent days illustrate the three recurrent lessons of the free agent era.Teams that pay the latest exorbitant rate for undistinguished players, as the Phillies have for Daulton, usually hurt themselves badly.Teams, such as the Dodgers, that sign players who'll someday be on the Hall of Fame ballot, usually get full value no matter how high that price is.Teams, such as the Mets, that neglect the huge egos and tender feelings of their superstars and haggle over money usually lose both their core players and their future.

Put it this way: Daulton and pitcher Greg Harris (re-signed by Boston at a cost slightly lower than MIT's endowment) look a lot like the Rennie Stennett and Don Stanhouse of a decade ago. At best, they might be decent. At worst, total busts. Often, the pressure of big money is enough by itself to crush a middling talent or a fragile ego. Mark Davis, the '89 NL Cy Young winner, came unraveled in '90, largely, he said, because of mega-contract pressure. In his prime and in perfect health, Davis could not get anybody out.

The Mets, in letting Strawberry get away, look like the Baltimore Orioles of winter 1976 who decided not to meet Reggie Jackson's stratospheric salary demands. Reggie wanted $250,000 a year. The Orioles said "Too much." The Yankees signed him, Jackson became Mr. October and the Yankees won back-to-back world titles. And the O's spent six years coming up one Reggie shy of a load.

With the rich, sometimes a little patience is needed. With superb athletes too. Strawberry's antics over the years would have driven any team crazy. Yet, just as he shows signs of maturing -- such as treating his alcoholism -- the Mets finally got fed up. "They never called and talked to me," Strawberry said yesterday. "It was like they were waiting for me to call them, which I wouldn't do."

After 252 home runs and a World Series title in his eight Mets years, Strawberry got this chilly goodbye kiss from the head Met, Frank Cashen: "He had more potential than any ballplayer I ever saw. I don't think that he's ever reached his potential." Bad feelings make for bad decisions.

As baseball's season of madness begins -- with only 100 or so signings left to be done -- there is cause for both worry and hope.

The Daulton deal looks like a disastrous precedent because this year's free agent crop has Daultons by the dozen. They're the fool's gold of baseball.

On the other hand, the Strawberry signing -- for $3 million less than Jose Canseco's five-year deal -- probably means that the cost of top talent will not increase. And that's the only kind of player worth breaking the bank for.

Of the Strawberry pact, one American League owner said yesterday, "This is just what we expected; it's no news."

For baseball, which finds itself in the midst of so many financial traumas, that kind of "no news" may be very good news.