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Winning is everything, but don't win too early

THE pennant races this fall have had all the suspense of a game of solitaire, played by a sneak who cheats. A nine-game spread between leader and runner-up is about as close as any of the one-sided affairs has gotten. The Mets have so dominated the National League East that the other teams seem to be competing in another league, or maybe another sport.

Even the individual races have lacked breath-holding drama. Mike Schmidt of the Phillies has run away with home runs and RBIs in the National League. In the American League, Roger Clemens of the Red Sox stands brilliantly alone among candidates for the Cy Young pitching award, leaving desperate sportswriters to dig up Vida Blue's record in 1971 as the nearest worthy comparison.

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The only suspense for the Boys of Summer in the autumn has been: Will Don Mattingly of the Yankees beat out Wade Boggs of the Red Sox, trying to repeat as American League batting champion? George Steinbrenner's last fantasy.

The wide margins of success in baseball '86 remind everybody how much sports fans -- and others -- depend upon narrow margins for their excitement in life.

Generations of headline writers have acknowledged our taste for slim victories with a whole thesaurus of terse verbs. Winners ``squeeze by'' or ``edge out'' losers. Contests ``go down to the wire'' -- real ``cliff-hangers.'' The true-glory heroes are born in ``sudden death'' situations -- two out in the bottom of the ninth, fourth down in the last minute of overtime.

There is no thrill, it seems, like almost losing, then coming from behind to win. The public just never tires of the old clich'e: ``snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.''

In fact, a whole hierarchy of values depends upon this hairbreadth style of squeaking through, just before the final bell sounds. The fellow who ``delivers in the clutch'' -- and not before -- represents the rosiest ideal not only in sports but maybe in life.

We in the stand, as well as the athletes on the field, are specialists in winning -- just barely, and at the last minute -- as if this were the preferred way.

In our youth, after a whole college term available for studying-by-installments, we cram like lunatics the night before the exam.

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In our maturity, we sprint to the post office at 11:55 p.m. on April 15 to file the tax returns that had been lying on our desk since mid-February.

You won't believe it, but there are journalists who go to the last minute on their deadline -- time after palm-sweating time.

Why do we complain of ``stress'' and then artfully arrange to live life as one crisis after another -- always playing catch-up, always having to deliver in the clutch, with two strikes and two out in the bottom of the ninth, and dusk falling fast?

Must we rig our lives as an emergency before we can perform -- before, as they say in the locker room, the adrenalin flows?

And what happens when our leaders conduct public life the way the rest of us conduct our private lives? -- voting on taxes, drafting antidrug legislation, and sending guns to here-and-there in a kind of beat-the-clock frenzy before recessing.

The flow of adrenalin places us in the mood of the caveman facing a saber-toothed tiger. It is the mood of danger and threat, of kill, or be killed. It works for prize fighters going after a knockout or defensive linemen going after a quarterback.

But is this any mood to cultivate in a world full of fast cars and nuclear bombs?

In case George Steinbrenner wants to know our fantasy, it goes like this. The World Series extends to the seventh game, to extra innings, and everything is decided when a base runner steals home. Meanwhile, certain journalists turn in their stories hours, if not days, ahead of deadline, and equally prudent world leaders avoid World War III and other catastrophies by so wide a margin that you just have to yawn when you read the headlines.

A Wednesday and Friday column

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