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By Larry Eldridge / October 14, 1983


Baseball's claim to be the national pastime is regularly challenged these days, and indeed the polls tell us that football has really been No. 1 now for quite some time. Well, maybe so in terms of asking fans which game they'd rather watch on a given Saturday or Sunday. But surely no other sport can begin to match baseball's unique hold on the public at large or its place in the daily fabric of life.

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We see this even in wintertime with all the ''hot stove league'' talk of free agent signings, trades, and Hall of Fame elections. We see it again in spring training, where baseball stands out as the only sport capable of getting people interested in its practice sessions. And of course we see it most of all each October, when the eyes of virtually the entire nation - serious fans, casual fans, even non-fans - are riveted on the World Series.

The explanation for this fascination can be summed up in one word: tradition. The current contest between the Orioles and Phillies, which moves here for the weekend following the first two games in Baltimore, is the 80th edition of the fall classic - which makes for a lot of memories. The Super Bowl, by contrast, is still a ''teen-ager'' in the historical league. And anyway, even the most ardent football fan could hardly argue that this one game, with its two weeks of hype and three hours of action, can rival the sustained interest and day-by-day conversational aspect of baseball's best-of-seven showcase.

The 1983 World Series has all these things, too, starting with the fact that it is the first-ever confrontation for a major sports championship between these old industrial and shipping centers located less than 100 miles apart and bearing so many physical, cultural, and historical resemblances. There hasn't been such a neighbor vs. neighbor rivalry since those ''Subway Series'' between the New York Yankees and the old Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1940s and '50s - and of course this one has already been nicknamed the ''Metroliner'' or ''I-95'' Series , depending upon one's transportation preference.

As for their similarities, both cities are steeped in national history - Philadelphia with its Revolutionary War aura as the home of Ben Franklin, Independence Hall, and the Liberty Bell; Baltimore as the site of Fort McHenry, where Francis Scott Key wrote the Star-Spangled Banner during the War of 1812. Both also found themselves subsequently overshadowed by more glamorous neighbors , New York and Washington. And both have staged resurgences in recent years, spending hundreds of millions of dollars in redevelopment and restoration projects such as Philadelphia's Society Hill and Independence Mall and Baltimore's much-publicized Harborplace.

In baseball lore too, both cities go just about all the way back. Philadelphia was a charter member of the National League in 1876, dropped out for a few years, but returned in 1883 and is thus celebrating its centennial this season. Baltimore also had professional teams from the 1870s on, and the original Orioles featuring John McGraw and Wee Willie Keeler won three National League pennants in the 1890s before the city lost its major league status from 1903 until 1954.

The franchises have strong similarities in the modern era too. The Orioles won their city's first World Series in 1966, and since the beginning of divisonal play in 1969 they've been in the playoffs seven times and the World Series five - more than any other team in either league. Meanwhile the Phillies , once a virtual synonym for baseball futility (two pennants and no world championships in nearly a century) have staged an equally impressive diamond renaissance. In the past eight seasons they've captured five division titles ( 1976-77-78-80-83), they won both the National League pennant and their first world championship ever in 1980, and now, of course, they have another league title and a chance for another Series victory.