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POINT OF VIEW / BOB OATES : A Sound-Bite Generation : Basketball's Fast-Thinking Fans Favor Fastest Sport; Baseball Is as Good as Ever, but Can't Hold the Audience

March 06, 1994|BOB OATES

Their thoughts wandered last fall when a baseball player, Lenny Dykstra, in one of the big events of the sports year, took five consecutive pitches in a typically slow-moving playoff game--never moving his bat from his shoulder.

Most end-of-the-century Americans don't have the time or patience to sit through the baseball playoffs. And so that night they missed one of the great athletic moments of our time.

*

The only thing that can speed up baseball is the 11 o'clock news. Between commercials, an entire World Series game can be staged in one sound bite without missing a significant pitch or base hit.

But that, of course, isn't the game that baseball fans love.

Theirs, they insist, is a sport without flaws.

As aspiring baseball player Michael Jordan said last year when he was still playing basketball: "I don't think baseball has done anything wrong. I think a new generation grew up with the NBA."

Still very much in place are all the aspects of baseball that made it the national pastime early in the 1900s.

As presented on warm summer evenings--or even on cold nights in California--baseball is still a pastoral game of precision, pageantry and a pleasing simplicity that masks often picturesque complexity.

As a television program, though, it doesn't adapt as well as basketball does or as football can with its avalanche of violent plays and instant replays.

So the best way to see a baseball game is to sit quietly in the stands, using binoculars now and then to focus on the batter, the pitcher, or the managers--who can always be out-guessed--or on such details as the changing alignments of the defensive teams.

With almost every pitch, one or more infielders will shift left or right, move in or out, and one or more outfielders will move a step or two or more.

For, if the score is close, every pitch begins a new ballgame, and any pitch can be decisive.

Baseball, as its fans say, is a game of expectations. What doesn't happen can be as interesting as what does. And the game moves with such deliberate speed that every spectator has an opportunity to live in the minds of the principals--the players and their managers--and to think along with them pitch to pitch, out to out, inning to inning.

"For most clubs, the object is to get a runner to second base," Oakland A's Manager Tony LaRussa said.

Once he's there, can the hitter get him home?

Can he do it if he falls behind, 0 and 2?

Can he do it if he works the count to 3 and 1?

It's a team game without a goal line to defend--that is a baseball oddity--but it's a team game only nominally. The essence of baseball is pitcher vs. hitter: the mind games of man vs. man.

No other sport except boxing is so conspicuously man to man.

*

Dykstra personified the timeless nature of the sport last October when a National League playoff game was poking along as usual. Tenth inning, score even, 3-3, series even, 2-2.

Coming to bat for the Philadelphia Phillies--slowly--Dykstra finally stepped in and took a strike.

Then he took a ball.

Then another ball.

Then he took Strike 2.

Then Ball 3.

Five pitches--and Dykstra's bat was still on his shoulder.

Was anything happening?

Is there any drama when a good hitter just stands there looking at the pitches?

It all depends.

It depends on whether the viewer realizes--or cares--that in that spot, Dykstra, a singles hitter normally, is working the count for his home run pitch--an inside fastball up in the strike zone.

"I think he would have fouled off three or four if he'd had to," said Steve Moyer of Chicago's Stats, Inc.

Instead, the sixth pitch was Dykstra's. And since the home run he hit that time had been planned and deliberately executed, it could be recognized immediately for what it was--one of the most difficult feats in all of team sports.

It was also the turning point in a series that ended the season for the Atlanta Braves.

For those who had the time to wait for it, \o7 that\f7 was a moment.

*

Few things more clearly define the difference between baseball and basketball than what happens after the final play:

* When the game is over and the crowd leaves the arena, basketball fans find it hard to remember what went on, precisely. They know who won, but the rest is often a blur.

* By contrast, baseball fans, on their way home, or when they get there, can reconstruct the whole game in their minds.

A mental exercise of that sort is a distinct plus to baseball fans, as well as to football fans and golfers, who frequently replay their games, too.

But it's all irrelevant to basketball fans.

Their most recent game is a jot in history. Who wants to give it another thought? After the last dunk every night, basketball fans are instantly ready for another show.

The polls show that most baseball fans are over 50. Basketball fans tend to be much younger--and it could be that their world was shaped by, of all things, TV commercials.

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