Ban bullfighting in Spain? It's as if someone wanted to ban baseball in the United States.

But a group of Spaniards, nevertheless, wants to put an end to what it sees as cruelty in the bullring.The Spanish Animal Rights Association and several European Parliament deputies have launched a Europe-wide petition drive calling on governments to adopt legislation that would ban bullfighting in Spain and France and fox hunting in Britain, France and Ireland.

The petition, which organizers say would carry half a million signatures, is to be given to Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez of Spain in January in Brussels, Belgium, after Spain assumes the rotating presidency of the European Economic Community for the first time.

While organizers want animal protection legislation passed in all 12 EEC member states, the petition is aimed specifically at ending or "modernizing" bullfighting in Spain and doing away with the torturing or killing of animals during many traditional religious festivals around the country.

Making bullfighting "modern" or acceptable to opponents would involve eliminating the picadors on horseback who lance the bull to weaken its neck muscles so its head goes down, the banderilleros who spike the animal's neck muscles with three pairs of long darts, and the final act - the moment of truth - when the matador stabs the bull between the shoulder blades and through the heart.

In neighboring Portugal, the bull is picked lightly by a bullfighter on horseback, then grabbed by the tail by a group of men called "forcados" and wrestled around until it is dazed. The bull does not die in the ring but is slaughtered shortly afterward in packing-house fashion.

The proposed legislation would also eliminate the use of horses during bullfights, prohibit young people from attending and force televised fights into a late-night time slot when children are in bed.

Carlos Briones, a spokesman for the Ministry of Interior which oversees bullfighting, said the government had no official comment on the subject.

But Briones said he personally feels bullfighting is part of Spanish culture and should be maintained.

Bullfighting is considered an art rather than a sport in Spain.

This past season, 23 million people attended bullfights in Spain, 3 million more than in 1987. The capitals of 49 of Spain's 52 provinces have permament bullrings, and during the summer months portable rings are set up in thousands of towns and villages for their annual fiestas.

The number of major fights rose 11 percent this year to 566, the highest number in the past decade.