WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — There was a game in Port St. Lucie between the Mets and the Yankees and, in almost any spring except this one, there would have been no better sports place in the world than Thomas J. White Stadium, right off the exit from I-95.
Maybe Jimmy Key would have pitched against Bret Saberhagen. But this is baseball's knock-off spring, so Key was gone, Saberhagen was gone, there were empty seats everywhere and the only people who mattered in baseball were the Room People, talking and talking and talking somewhere in Arizona.
The Room People ruined what should have been a spectacular spring -training the way they have tried to ruin everything.
So there was no need to watch the knock-off game in Port St. Lucie, unless you were interested in knowing that an old pitching wreck named Doug Sisk still is incapable of throwing a sinker that actually sinks.
These were just strangers in Mets uniforms against other strangers in Yankees uniforms. It took about an inning for the center fielder for the Mets, whoever that is these days, to misplay a routine fly ball in the sun.
It was no better in West Palm Beach, where it was supposed to be the Braves against the Expos in a quaint spring-training park called Municipal Stadium, because both the Braves and Expos train in West Palm every spring.
There were just more strangers in West Palm. You could have brought them up I-95 and said they were the Yankees and Mets and no one would have noticed and no one would have cared.
And more than 200 days into a labor dispute that will be studied someday as baseball's Vietnam, Stan Kasten, the president of the Atlanta Braves, says, "I hope we can start negotiating now."
He meant everybody can start negotiating now that the players finally have stopped telling the owners how to share their revenue. The players acted last week as if this were a huge concession on their part. But Kasten, just back from Arizona, said forget it.
"It's only taken us more than six months to get a phony issue like that off the table," Kasten said. "If they hadn't wasted all this time telling us how to cut up our share of things, maybe this whole thing would be a lot further along."
Then Kasten, who really is one of the good guys in sports, coming from big jobs with both the Hawks and the Braves, was into all the usual rhetoric from his side, about how baseball owners would accept the NBA's economic system, or the NHL's, or the NFL's, or even mediator William Usery's.
"But this isn't a negotiation with these players," Kasten said. "It's not even business. It's a religious war. They've never had to compromise in the past, and they don't want to start now. And so we're all very close to damaging another season."
I asked Kasten if any of his fellow Room People ever worry about the damage they already have done to baseball.
"You're talking about both sides?" Kasten said.
"We worry about it all the time."
The Room People ruined a pennant race. They took the World Series. Now they have taken spring training, at least so far.
The owners, some of the wealthiest people in the world, scream that they must have change or teams will go out of business. The players somehow have confused rights they have won bargaining with moral rights, as though there is some passage in the Bible about David Cone's right to a $9-million signing bonus.
It is easy for Cone to speak for all players with religious zeal knowing all that money is in the bank.
Cone keeps talking. They all do. Nothing ever happens. Kasten says the owners will not shut down baseball, no matter what. He is not as big a phony as George Steinbrenner, so he stops himself short of saying the owners offer up Sisk and supermarket bag boys because they care so deeply about the fans.
Kasten was asked if he thinks any deal is imminent.
Finally Kasten was asked, "Do the owners want to make a deal?"
"A lot more than the union does," he said. "I swear to God. We're not looking for a win here. We're just looking for a tie."
While baseball loses a little more of its dignity, every day. There were no winners anywhere yesterday. Just losers, on the field and off, in Port St. Lucie and West Palm Beach and all the other sad, bust-out places in a ruined spring.
Some random thoughts:
--Maybe baseball players should stay on strike until Aug. 12, and just pick up last season where they left off.
--Clueless Bud Selig leaving the negotiations isn't exactly like Elvis leaving the arena, let's face facts.
--Whenever I see "exclusive" attached to a story about George Steinbrenner, no kidding, my heart starts to beat like a triphammer.
--Is Doc Gooden under the impression that good intentions are going to get him an early parole from baseball?
--I thought Anthony Mason was crazy to pass up $8 million from the Knicks, or whatever it was, but Mason turned out to be smarter than everybody, because he now stands to make a lot more.
--Is this still early season form for the Rangers, midseason form or are we already into our playoff push?
Short seasons confuse me, I'm not going to lie to you.
--My prediction is that we are going to see a kinder and gentler Pat Riley down the stretch.
If he does leave town after the season, he doesn't want people acting as if Mike Keenan left.
--Tony Bennett winning Album of the Year is simply validation of my own musical tastes.
--People who worry that Phil Simms might embarrass himself by coming back to football, who worry that he might commit the unpardonable sports sin of tarnishing our memories of him, someday will have to be dragged kicking and screaming away from their own jobs.
--It is worth noting that the Magic beat the Knicks this past week, beat the Rockets and should have beaten the Spurs.
Shaq and Penny Hardaway and the rest of them are the best show we've got going in sports right now, whether they win the title this season or not.
--During the past few seasons, Dennis Rodman has looked like the most gifted rebounder of all time.