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Loves Me, Loves Me Not....

Why Baseball Endures: a Devotee Steps to Plate

April 01, 2001|ROSS NEWHAN

I am paging through the cluttered scrapbook of the mind, visualizing special moments and personalities.

It is suggested by the editors that 40 years of covering baseball is an appropriate milestone at which to reflect on why the game endures.

What is it that sparks the imagination and starts the turnstiles purring again each spring despite all the misery and negativity--the whining players, the soaring salaries, the unrestrained owners, the rising ticket prices, the inevitable labor problems between a union and management that can't decide how to divide more than $3 billion in revenue.

It would seem so easy to stay away, to concede that Shakespeare had it right when he wrote, "a plague o' both your houses."

Instead, the fans have been coming in record numbers at both the major and minor league levels, attracted by poor pitching and games that last until midnight, paying premium prices so that the kids can hear the guy sitting next to them chant "Yankees suck!" while spilling his $6 cup of beer on them.

So, what is the answer?

What is it that prompts us to retain a certain romanticism about a game that shed its innocence long ago?

Why does it endure? What draws us back?

The answer, of course, is that there is no one answer because the question is far too personal.

Strip away the greed, the money, the sport as business, and we are each likely to uncover an Iowa cornfield somewhere in our roots--be it urban playground or rural sandlot.

Strip away the mercenary, and we each have our own history, emotions, attachments--and scrapbook.

I am the son of the father who would find seats for us in the last row of the upper deck at now-demolished Wrigley Field for Sunday doubleheaders when the Los Angeles Angels were home and the major leagues were too far away to even think about and I hated the Hollywood Stars and doted on the Pacific Coast League exploits of Angels named Gene Baker and Frankie Baumholtz and big Steve Bilko, of course, and my father would say, "Yes, but you should have seen Jigger Statz and Truck Hannah and some of those Angels of the past."

I am also the father of the son who may have figured that the only way to communicate with his dad was through baseball and who has now played in the major leagues for the San Diego Padres and Philadelphia Phillies and whose travels through minor league ballparks in such places as Modesto and Visalia and Huntsville, Ala., have served to temper the father's press box cynicism and been a reminder that the grass-roots atmosphere still exists and that there are hundreds of young players out there still chasing a dream and partially paying for it out of their own pocket because the owners have to cut back somewhere for all those major league millionaires and who cares if the kids they hope will restock their major league club get there on Quarter Pounders?

Baseball endures because the scrapbooks provide a mosaic of who we are and where we've been, as individuals and country, and if that's too idyllic, too corny, then try erasing 100 years of Babe Ruth and Home Run Baker, of Murderers' Row and the Gashouse Gang, of Connie Mack and John McGraw, of Stan the Man, Joltin' Joe and Teddy Ballgame, of Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby, of Satchel and Buck O'Neil, of Bobby Thomson and Bucky Dent, of Sparky and Tommy, Henry and Reggie, Cal and Lou, Sandy and Big D, Orel and Darryl, Mark and Sammy, Nolan and Rolen, Nomar and A-Rod and, of course, Willie, Mickey and the Duke.

We sing songs to baseball, know it on a first-name and nickname basis, pay homage to places named Cooperstown and Williamsport, argue over players, teams and eras, and pick up our teeth and keep coming back every time there's a work stoppage, every time there's another debate over how much is too much.

No other sport produces as much controversy and conversation, strategy and second-guessing. No other sport has had a longer hold on our emotions--from the long-suffering faithful of New England to the loyalty-tested Dodger fans amid the chaos under Fox.

No other sport has experienced a revival to match baseball's since the death knell that was the cancellation of the 1994 World Series and the labor dispute of 1994-95--thanks in large measure to Cal Ripken Jr.'s pursuit of Lou Gehrig's record for consecutive games and the home run exploits of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. Revenue has almost doubled since '94, and attendance eclipsed a record 73 million last year. The commissioner may talk of the lost hope in too many cities because of the revenue and competitive disparity, but in reality it's a golden age of talented players--unmatched, perhaps, in any era.

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