April 30, 1991|By GARY BURK

SYLVANIA, OHIO — Sylvania, Ohio.-- There were men on the frontier, we have been told, who had an amazing tracking ability. We all recall at least one Western movie scene where the posse or cavalry troop stood by in focused silence as the scout examined the evidence.

A twig bent just so; a clump of grass pushed a certain way: indicators of how long prior the pursued had passed by. The stride shortening now; they've slowed, weary, perhaps. And see this; a deeper set of hoofprints. Someone could be riding double. A lame horse?

What might they do? Dash for the border? Or circle back for an ambush? Decision time. Lie back and we might lose them; plunge ahead recklessly and we might get a deadly surprise. Your call, Sheriff.

The most profound insights are often available from the simplest information. Yet without discernment, the posse is no more than a mob on a fool's chase, bound for failure or destruction.

I saw a sign along the trail the other day and it made me wonder what we're chasing.

It was a filler piece on baseball, adding bulk to the Sunday sports section. Whitey Herzog was recounting some of the problems he encountered last season, a disappointing one for the St. Louis Cardinals. It was about halfway through the summer, he said, when things kind of got out of control.

Seems that a number of players were due to become free agents at the end of the current season. Knowing that they would therefore be negotiating contracts based on the current season's numbers, Whitey found himself unwilling or feeling unable to call upon the players to execute certain plays that might depress their personal statistics.

Little things, you know, like hitting behind the runner; things that might lower one's batting average even if it produced the winning run. The problem was, Whitey said, that that kind of thing could cost a guy millions in future contracts.

Say it ain't so, Whitney. Though I've never been to the park in St. Louis, I worry that our hometown guys might be thinking the same way. Please tell me that the white shirts are really trying to win today's game. Tell me that the hundred bucks I invested last summer to take my two nephews and the neighbor kid to that one game was money well spent.

And tell me, please, that I don't have to go back to my son and daughter and all the other kids I've coached over the years and tell them I taught them to be suckers.

''The team always comes first.'' I have drilled it into them.

Year after year, I would explain the rationale. ''Sometimes you are positive you can take the guy downtown, but the best strategy is to lay one down. Get your mate into scoring position. Sure, maybe the next guy up gets the RBI that wins it. But you were the guy that made it happen.

''And yeh, afterward, everybody is jumping all over the guy who scored the winner, but you're the guy who got him to third with only one out; gave up a chance to be the hero for a better chance the team would mark up a W. So it cost you a couple points on your average, but what's that against the good feeling you and your buddies have?''

You know, I think there was another sign along the trail last summer. Couple of the guys didn't come back for our PeeWee season. Seems there was a dude hanging around their neighborhood, driving a fancy car, wearing sharp clothes. Seemed to have a lot of time for the kids. Knew lots of jokes and interesting stories.

When I read Whitey's comments, several things flashed through my head all at the same time. I thought about baseball and our nation's drug problems and people who beat up on children and the NCAA basketball tournament and the S&L mess.

Then I suddenly recalled a billboard I had seen a while back. Big bold type declared: ''Just say No.'' I thought about my own kids and all the kids I have coached and realized I had a kind of a sick, empty feeling in my stomach.

It occurs to me that today's young trackers are finding some pretty complex signs along the trail. I'm hoping there's someone in the posse who will help sort them out.

Gary Burk is a free lance.

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