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Better than baseball deserves

George Mitchell has been that rarest of animals: the self-effacing congressional leader.

The Senate majority leader from Maine has used his low-key persuasive skills to accomplish a great deal, but he has never been all that impressed with the political power that turns so many of his colleagues' heads. The best evidence of his down-to-earth attitude came last week, when he announced that he wouldn't seek re-election to the Senate this fall.

Mitchell is relatively young (60), healthy and untainted by scandal. He also was virtually assured of re-election had he chosen to run for a third full term. No Washington politician in memory has willingly parted with such power under similar circumstances.

Some say Mitchell is leaving Washington because he is fed up with the inflated egos and underdeveloped consciences of so many of his Senate colleagues. If those are his reasons, though, why would he seriously consider taking the job of baseball commissioner? Compared with the privileged club of owners the commissioner must answer to, the U.S. Senate is a veritable convent.

Still, Mitchell reportedly will be willing to accept the commissioner's job if no Supreme Court appointment comes his way between now and January. The owners' interest in Mitchell is understandable; he would bring much-needed prestige and integrity to the game's administrative offices. Mitchell's interest in the owners is hard to fathom, though. The owners have stripped away most of the real power the commissioner once wielded _ along with most of the pretense that the commissioner is anything more than a glorified gofer for the game's real bosses.

Beyond that, the owners would expect Mitchell to lobby his old Senate friends in a manner he might find distasteful. Mitchell prides himself on having never used his power as majority leader to threaten anyone or to cut unethical deals. Those tactics are the baseball owners' stock in trade, and they surely would expect Mitchell to use his special relationship with Congress to head off Washington's effort to strip baseball of its undeserved antitrust exemption.

After decades of haughty disregard for their public responsibilities, the owners have become alarmed by Senate Judiciary Committee hearings that are giving the antitrust exemption much more serious scrutiny than they originally expected. In fact, the committee will be conducting field hearings on the subject in Florida later this month _ at the height of spring training. Tampa Bay officials could hardly ask for more favorable circumstances in which to make their compelling case against baseball's owners.

Considering the situation in which the owners have placed themselves, they may be expecting more of Mitchell than he could deliver. In fact, the ghosts of Sam Rayburn and Kenesaw Mountain Landis might not have the power to plead the owners' case effectively in Washington or anywhere else. George Mitchell is a good man who has served the country well. He deserves a better fate than the one the lords of baseball have in mind for him.