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JOSEPH N. BELL

Ah, the Game Goes On . . . Thankfully

April 06, 1989|JOSEPH N. BELL

Although the Angels officially launched their 1989 baseball season this Tuesday, mine opened the previous Thursday when I took my two grandsons and stepson (ages 5, 8, and 11, respectively) to the opener of the freeway series in Dodger Stadium.

We got there an hour early so we could watch the Angels take batting practice, and while the kids were hanging over the rail trying to pick up migrant baseballs and autographs, I settled in my seat in a near-deserted stadium and shifted into the baseball mode I will wear for the next 6 months.

This all goes back a good many years, to rugged Midwestern winters when the start of the baseball season was an inflexible sign that winter was over and we could look forward to 7 months of warm-to-hot weather.

I've huddled in Comiskey Park in Chicago in April when there were still vestiges of snow in the cracks of the field tarpaulin. But by God, it was baseball time and that meant spring, and if nature wasn't cooperating, she'd better shape up. I've often wondered if my devotion to baseball would have been as strong if I had been raised in the kind of climate we have in Orange County.

I suspect it would, because baseball has always allowed me to get all my moral, philosophical, social and political problems in perspective. Quite suddenly, those matters became secondary to whether or not Jim Abbott can pitch at the major league level, how the Angels are going to squeeze Dante Bichette into their lineup, and how many torpid performances it will take by his team to jar Angel manager Doug Rader out of his new sweetness-and-light approach to life and work.

But last Thursday in Dodger Stadium, I found myself struggling much more than usual to make the shift. I found I was having trouble putting out of my head the off-season clutter that has turned attention away from the game to the people who play it. The Wade Boggs-Margo Adams caper. Steve Garvey's indiscriminate parenting. The gambling accusations surrounding Pete Rose. The acceptance as virtually inevitable that there will be a baseball strike in 1990.

The strike threat disturbs me more than anything else. Lockout clauses are being written into 1990 contracts, and a union official is already saying that the players won't start spring training next year if negotiations are still under way. They have a full year to negotiate. If they can't work it out in that length of time, someone else should step in and do it for them. Like an arbitration committee of fans, whose interests are totally ignored--as they always have been--in this power struggle.

I was thinking this way and feeling troubled rather than relieved when one of my grandsons was given a ball by Angel coach Bobby Knoop. The ball had bounced into the stands, careened around the seats avoiding the desperate efforts of my kids to grab it, then bounced back out on the field. Knoop, recognizing a miscarriage of justice, retrieved the ball and handed it to my oldest grandson. It was badly scarred by its trip through the seats, but it was a treasure beyond dreams, and his excitement finally took me where I wanted to be.

I've covered enough baseball--and even worked briefly as a publicist for the St. Louis Cardinals at the end of the Branch Rickey era--to carry few illusions about the heroic qualities of ballplayers or the social conscience of the owners. But that has never before mitigated my affection--perhaps a better word would be addiction--for the game. It just took me longer than usual last Thursday to realize that it is the game itself--and not the personal qualities of the people who play or administer it--that is so very compelling.

It's only a short step from that awareness to the recognition that the same thing is true of many of our other institutions. It seems that no matter how many dunderheads we send to Washington, the government creaks and groans and survives. And no matter how many incompetent third-generation family icons or tunnel-vision money jugglers are put in charge of our corporations, they mostly stagger along because of the dynamism of the system itself. And no matter how many baseball players are dopers or womanizers or surly illiterates, the game will play--with perhaps a little luster gone--almost as magnificently as it ever has.

This is not to say that there aren't a good many talented and dedicated and unselfish people in government and business and baseball. Without them, the institutions--however strong their foundations--could not survive.

So thank you Bobby Knoop for making my day as well as my grandson's. No more of this heavy stuff. I'm ready for the 1989 season.

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