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Why baseball's show must go on; Palmer charges to victory. Four ball clubs clinch titles, but statistical honors still up for grabs

Quite often, the suspense about which teams will make the baseball playoffs lingers until the last days, sometimes even the last outs, of the regular season. That's hardly the case this year. When the Boston Red Sox clinched the title in the American League East Sunday, the playoff slate was completed with a full week still to go. So why wait until next Tuesday to begin the AL's best-of-seven championship series between Boston and California, or until the day after to start the NL playoff between Houston and the New York Mets? Why not cancel the seemingly unnecessary remaining games and get down to the task at hand before the snow flies?

No-shows may be heavy this week, but clubs still have a responsibility to deliver a product. And let's face it, no team wants to refund the money it has made from the advance sale of tickets.

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Then, too, baseball is a game rich in statistics, and for these statistics to be meaningful they must be compiled in a standard-length season. For the number of games to vary from year to year just wouldn't do. And to complicate matters, some players receive contract bonuses based on their various statistical achievements.

In the American League, the batting race could go down to the wire, with Boston's Wade Boggs and New York's Don Mattingly hitting .352 and .350, respectively, as the week began. The Red Sox and Yankees conclude the season with a four-game series in Boston, so the two players will battle it out on the same field if they remain close.

Boggs has won the AL batting championship two of the last three years (1983 and '85), with Mattingly beating out teammate Dave Winfield for the '84 crown on the season's final day. Palmer soars with eagles

Even on the 50-and-older, seniors golf tour, winning hasn't come easily for Arnold Palmer, who registered his first win of 1986, and his first since June 1985, at Cape Elizabeth, Maine, over the weekend. The galleries were treated to vintage Palmer, as Arnie charged home with a 3-under-par 68 on the final round to take a three-shot victory over Don January.

He wasn't about to play it cozy. On Sunday's second hole he smacked a fairway wood over a stand of trees to within eight feet of the cup. He two-putted for a birdie.

Later, with his lead dwindling after a series of bogeys, he regained control by eagling the 16th hole for the third straight day.

As spectacular as the three eagles were, they still couldn't top another Palmer feat. Playing in a Maryland pro-am earlier this month, he scored a hole-in-one on the same 187-yard, par-3 two days in a row. ``I'd like to take this hole home with me,'' he said after his 1-in-10 million achievement made him the only touring pro to card aces in this manner. Low-key grid renaissance

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Though hard to imagine for young fans, the University of Chicago was once nationally prominent in college football. Its team was schooled under legendary coach Amos Alonzo Stagg for many years, won several Big Ten Conference titles, and boasted the very first Heisman Trophy recipient in halfback Jay Berwanger.

All this occurred before 1939, when the school decided to drop varsity football rather than get caught up in the big-time athletic spiral. Chicago, however, began a modest emergence from the gridiron oblivion in 1969, when football returned to campus.

Last year's team went 5-4, a major feat, considering the scarcity of winning seasons. The Maroons hadn't finished above .500 since 1929.

This year Chicago is off to a 2-1 start, and on Saturday beat Illinois College 42-7. The team's other victory came against Washington University (St. Louis) 17-14 in the opener that helped to launch a new league, the University Athletic Association. The UAA is a far cry from the Big Ten. There are no athletic scholarships, and football players are treated as ordinary students. It's small-time all the way, except geographically, with the three Midwestern representatives (Chicago, Washington U, and Cleveland's Case Western Reserve) joined by Emory in Atlanta and an Eastern contingent of Johns Hopkins (Baltimore), Carnegie Mellon (Pittsburgh), New York University, and the University of Rochester (N.Y.). Rules changes proposed

Members of the International Tennis Federation are concerned enough about slow play that they have recommended introducing a shorter time limit between points.

The current limit is 30 seconds, but some players seem to have developed an inner timing mechanism set for 29 seconds. The federation would like to see 20 seconds tried.

On another topic, ITF president Philippe Chatrier is encouraging some consideration for deemphasizing the big serve in men's tennis, particularly on grass courts. He sees merit in going to one serve rather than two.

``That at least would lead to a little more caution at the start of a point and thereby increase the chance of a successful return and a rally developing,'' Chatrier explains.

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