Recently, the Sporting News, which years ago was called "the bible of baseball," picked the 100 Greatest Baseball Players in history.

You'd expect any such list to cause debate and maybe even a little controversy. But you would not expect the whole thing to be a sad joke.

Not one athlete who has set foot on a major league field in the entire decade of the 1990s is listed among the top 33 players! And only three active players (Barry Bonds, Greg Maddux and Tony Gwynn) are in the top 50 in TSN's history.

Can you imagine a list of all-time great NFL or NBA players that didn't include a '90s athlete in the top 33 or had three active players in its top 50? It's inconceivable. In the NFL, you'd never hear, "Nobody these days can lug that ball like Steve Van Buren, Red Grange or Marion Motley." Does the NBA deify George Mikan, Dolph Schayes and Bob Cousy? Au contraire -- you'd think Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett, with his ridiculous $120 million contract, were already better than anybody who played before 1980.

Only baseball could reduce ancestor worship to such absurdity. It's an attitude that permeates, and diminishes, the sport. Especially now, in what might be the most talent-rich period in the game's history. According to the baseball bible, on the other hand, nobody these days can play a lick.

Well, certainly not compared to Napoleon Lajoie, whose 125th birthday will no doubt be celebrated this year in his native Woonsocket, R.I.

Or little 170-pound George Sisler, who hit .400 twice back when it was only equivalent to .360 now. Or stylish but overrated Roberto Clemente, who had 75 or more RBI in only eight of his 18 seasons. (Eddie Murray had that many 19 straight years!) Why include a current great when you can exalt a swell guy like Shoeless Joe (Banned For Life) Jackson who had his only 100 RBI season in 1920, after the 1919 World Series?

Baseball has always been prone to rear-view mirror vision at the expense of its current stars. But, for some reason, this tendency is stronger than ever. Every modern great is belittled compared to the Ruths or Cobbs of antiquity.

Cal Ripken plays 2,632 consecutive games, mostly as a shortstop, but don't you dare say that his 16-all-star-game career is even remotely comparable to immobile first baseman Lou Gehrig and his 2,130-game streak. Sacrilege! Ripken isn't in TSN's top 75! Gehrig is No. 6.

Mark McGwire obliterates Ruth's home run records for one, two and three seasons -- averaging 60 homers the last three years. Sure, Ruth is TSN's No. 1 player. But McGwire, with 463 homers, isn't in the top 90! Hey, Big Mac is right ahead of Chuck Klein. Don't get me going on Klein, whose 300 career homers puts him behind 29-year-old Juan Gonzalez.

Ken Griffey Jr. isn't in the top 90 either, though he should already be in the top 20. Yes, top 20. At age 29, his best homer totals are 56, 56, 49, 45 and 40 in a strike-shortened season when he was on pace for 58. His best RBI totals are 147, 146 and 140. At the same age, Willie Mays's best homer years were 51, 41, 36, 35 and 34. His top RBI years were 127, 110 and 104. The gap between these two perennial gold glove center fielders is absolutely huge. And it's all in Griffey's favor. Yet Mays is ranked No. 2 in history!

Griffey, on the other hand, is ranked 26 spots behind Oscar Charleston. I'm truly tempted to research Oscar Charleston -- No. 67. Was he a 19th century player? A Negro Leagues star? A legend in Antarctic sandlot ball? Who knows? But you know he's got to be 20 or 30 spots "greater" than such players as Murray, Kirby Puckett, Ozzie Smith, Dave Winfield, Wade Boggs, Dennis Eckersley or Paul Molitor because they all played in the '90s. How good can they be, tainted as they are by freshness?

When Joe DiMaggio was buried, he was still called "baseball's greatest living player." Give me a break. DiMaggio hit more than 40 homers once and had 30 steals in his whole career. There's never been a more gilded lily than Joe. Willie Mays had 998 homers-plus-steals -- 607 more than DiMaggio did. Mays's godson, Barry Bonds, will probably have 500 homers, 500 steals, plus a higher on-base average than The Clipper. But don't dare mention Bonds, who has three MVP awards, in the same breath with DiMaggio, who won two.

Pitchers get the same treatment. Roger Clemens, with five Cy Young Awards and back-to-back seasons with the pitching Triple Crown -- leading the league in wins, strikeouts and earned run average -- can't break into the top 50. For example, how could you put him ahead of Carl Hubbell or Bob Feller?

One possible reason would be that, at 36 and currently in the midst of a 17-game win streak that ties the American League record, Clemens has already surpassed both Hubbell and Feller. And he's still at his peak.

Hubbell was 253-154 with a 2.98 ERA, three ERA titles, three win titles and one strikeout crown. Feller was 266-162 with a 3.25 ERA, one ERA title, six win titles and seven strikeout crowns. Entering this season, Clemens was 233-124 with a 2.95 ERA, six ERA titles, four win titles and five strikeout crowns.

Perhaps even more comical, and indicative of baseball's inability to grasp and enjoy what's on its plate, is the ranking of the greatest relief pitcher in history -- the flamboyant Eckersley -- as No. 98. What did I miss? Was it the 398 saves or the 197 wins? Was it the consecutive unbelievable ERAs of 2.35, 1.56, 0.61, 2.96 and 1.91? Was it 16 total walks in three consecutive seasons? Was it winning 20 games as a starter in 1978 yet still pitching effectively in 1998 at age 43? Was it the three Athletics teams he pitched to the World Series?

I know I must have missed something because if Eck's not one of the 33 "greatest" baseball players -- and the best ever at his position -- then who is?

Perhaps what's most striking about TSN's list is that, after Ruth at No. 1, you can make strong arguments for moving lots of players down 10 places or more while moving others up dozens of spots. It's fluid near the top.

After Ruth, the drop-off is large. Walter Johnson only had one pitch. Cobb was a creep. Ted Williams and Rogers Hornsby couldn't field. Hank Aaron was never as good as Mays or Mickey Mantle in his own time. Gehrig was flawless, but lacked Ruth's candlepower. Okay, Christy Mathewson was perfect, but he never faced a lively ball.

Our modern players have the chance to climb far higher than they might imagine, especially if they read TSN. What current players can realistically fantasize about reaching the all-time top 20 if they stay productive until they are 38, then add a couple of modest concluding years? That's not asking much, considering several recent players who've starred into their 40s.

Bonds, Maddux, McGwire and Clemens have plausible shots. Ripken, with 3,000 hits and 400 homers, might get close.

If we extrapolate further, but not ridiculously far, we can include Juan Gonzalez and Frank Thomas in that group -- if they duplicate in the second half of their careers what they've done so far. At 29 and 31, respectively, it's conceivable. They'd end up with 600 homers, 1,900 RBI careers that would match or surpass Jimmie Foxx (No. 15) and Frank Robinson (No. 22).

Even more tantalizing is Mike Piazza, 30, who's hit .333 with 637 RBI and 199 homers in the last six years. Only Johnny Bench, among catchers, has had such an amazing offensive prime (198 homers, 677 RBI in six years). Will Piazza's knees let him catch another four or five years to challenge Bench, who's No. 16 all time?

One current player, however, is in totally different territory from anyone else. At the moment, Griffey is on pace for 58 homers and 150 RBI in '99. In other words, exactly the same sort of season he has had in his last four healthy years. Baseball has never seen a player who could climb fences, steal bases, wear his hat backward, get hitting advice from his dad and grin all the way to 500 homers in the 10 years of his prime. He's also got the tailwind of a lousy-pitching, lively-ball era of offense all around him.

If Griffey's career continues and concludes on what, for him, is a normal arc, he would probably pass Willie Mays as No. 2 on most all-time lists. Junior's not the Babe. But he may be the next best thing. And we've got him. Even though the baseball bible ranks him behind Chuck Klein.

The Sporting News' Top 100

1. Babe Ruth

2. Willie Mays

3. Ty Cobb

4. Walter Johnson

5. Hank Aaron

6. Lou Gehrig

7. Christy Mathewson

8. Ted Williams

9. Rogers Hornsby

10. Stan Musial

11. Joe DiMaggio

12. Grover Alexander

13. Honus Wagner

14. Cy Young

15. Jimmie Foxx

16. Johnny Bench

17. Mickey Mantle

18. Josh Gibson

19. Satchel Paige

20. Roberto Clemente

21. Warren Spahn

22. Frank Robinson

23. Lefty Grove

24. Eddie Collins

25. Pete Rose

26. Sandy Koufax

27. Tris Speaker

28. Mike Schmidt

29. Napoleon Lajoie

30. Steve Carlton

31. Bob Gibson

32. Tom Seaver

33. George Sisler

34. Barry Bonds

35. Joe Jackson

36. Bob Feller

37. Hank Greenberg

38. Ernie Banks

39. Greg Maddux

40. Yogi Berra

41. Nolan Ryan

42. Mel Ott

43. Al Simmons

44. Jackie Robinson

45. Carl Hubbell

46. Charlie Gehringer

47. Buck Leonard

48. Reggie Jackson

49. Tony Gwynn

50. Roy Campanella

51. Rickey Henderson

52. Whitey Ford

53. Roger Clemens

54. Harry Heilmann

55. George Brett

56. Willie McCovey

57. Bill Dickey

58. Lou Brock

59. Bill Terry

60. Joe Morgan

61. Rod Carew

62. Paul Waner

63. Eddie Mathews

64. Jim Palmer

65. Mickey Cochrane

66. Cool Papa Bell

67. Oscar Charleston

68. Eddie Plank

69. Harmon Killebrew

70. Pie Traynor

71. Juan Marichal

72. Carl Yastrzemski

73. Lefty Gomez

74. Robin Roberts

75. Willie Keeler

76. Al Kaline

77. Eddie Murray

78. Cal Ripken

79. Joe Medwick

80. Brooks Robinson

81. Willie Stargell

82. Ed Walsh

83. Duke Snider

84. Sam Crawford

85. Dizzy Dean

86. Kirby Puckett

87. Ozzie Smith

88. Frank Frisch

89. Goose Goslin

90. Ralph Kiner

91. Mark McGwire

92. Chuck Klein

93. Ken Griffey Jr.

94. Dave Winfield

95. Wade Boggs

96. Rollie Fingers

97. Gaylord Perry

98. Dennis Eckersley

99. Paul Molitor

100. Early Wynn

CAPTION: Willie Mays, top, is No. 2 on Sporting News list. Despite dazzling stats, Ken Griffey Jr. isn't in top 90.

CAPTION: Babe Ruth (top), of course, is No. 1. Mark McGwire isn't in top 90.