Let the barbs fly!

One of the more entertaining sidelights to the Alex Rodriguez blockbuster trade was the war of words between George Steinbrenner and John Henry, the principal owners of, respectively, the Yankees and Red Sox.

After Henry fired off an e-mail bemoaning the Yanks' enormous resources and calling for a salary cap to contain them -- a missive of enormous hypocrisy, by the way, but that's another matter altogether -- Steinbrenner responded in his best passive-aggressive fashion, chiding Henry for failing to accomplish what the Yankees had done.

This was terrific stuff -- two titans, rolling around in the mud, slinging insults. It was entertaining, hilarious and revealing.

It was also, soon, outlawed by commissioner Bud Selig, who issued a cease-and-desist and warned that further spitballs from the owners would be dealt with harshly.

Selig's command for the two to make nice almost drew groans, like a teacher arriving to pull apart two combatants on the playground.

Apparently, Selig believes the brick-tossing between Steinbrenner and Henry -- and, in the past, Red Sox team president Larry Lucchino and Steinbrenner -- is unbecoming to the franchises and the sport in general. He couldn't be more wrong.

If Selig is worried that such talk is bound to draw attention to the fact that the best players are outpriced to all but a handful of teams, well, that dirty little secret was made public long ago.

The Steinbrenner-Henry fracas kept baseball in the news for days after the excitement/furor over A-Rod had subsided. From the back pages of New York's tabloids to the radio airwaves in Boston, it was the only topic in play. Nationally, too, the back-and-forth got plenty of attention.

Baseball can use all the publicity it can get. College basketball is heading for March Madness, the NBA and NHL are approaching their playoff pushes and football has its draft combine to keep it in the news.

Sure, the beginning of spring training delivers baseball a big pump, but those idyllic shots of palm trees and baserunning drills only guarantee the game so much airtime on the local newcasts.

Conflict? Two squabbling billionaires? Nasty asides lobbed like hand grenades? Heck, this is baseball's own gift-wrapped reality show. Too bad Selig saw fit to cancel it.

It's not surprising to those who know Selig well. The commissioner strives for consensus and relishes his role as the game's fence-mender. Dispute disturbs him, as one might expect from someone who has overseen a game torn by labor dispute.

But this is different. When Steinbrenner and Henry sparred, they weren't tearing at the fabric of the game; they were merely serving as surrogates for their respective fan bases. Steinbrenner was strutting and taunting; Henry was equal parts envious and frustrated.

At a time when all sports -- not just baseball -- more closely resemble the multi-billion businesses they are at bottom, we could feel the grudge match to inject some soul into the game.

Think about it: don't fans complain that sports is too corporate, too sterile? But when Steinbrenner and Henry took their shots at each other, they weren't acting like CEOs; they were behaving like fans.

Steinbrenner and Henry weren't acting, of course. They are fans, capable of silly insults and deeply-felt emotions. Baseball could use more like them.

It's not necessary -- or wise -- for Selig to mandate harmony in the owner's box. This is baseball's best rivalry, now operating at a level unmatched in recent memory. Selig should step back and let the two arch-rivals go at it -- on the field and off -- and pray that the intensity and fervor catches on elsewhere.

If baseball is lucky, the Giants and Dodgers will soon hate each other as much as the Yankees and Red Sox. Same with Cardinals-Cubs and other arch-enemies.

No other sport muzzles its members. The NFL, in fact, quietly revels in these sort of conflicts. When Bill Parcells bolted the New England Patriots for the New York Jets, the acrimony flowed like water downstream. The NFL didn't slap the franchises with fines; instead, they scheduled the two for prime-time matchups, the better to capitalize on the ill-will.

The pity is, Selig cut the act off at the knees just when it was getting interesting. Henry -- once a limited partner in the Yankees and an associate of Steinbrenner's -- compared him to insult king Don Rickles. Steinbrenner, before hilariously coming to Rickle's defense, retorted that the lithe Henry reminded him of the Scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz.

With the resources of these two, they could have hired professional comedy writers to provide even better material. The possibilities -- and the resulting publicity -- were endless.

That's something baseball can use. Sure beats those BALCO hearings, right Bud?

Sean McAdam of the Providence (R.I.) Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.