FOOTBALL heroes, even without their awesome shoulder pads, are brawnier. Basketball offers human skyscrapers in jangling combat. A summit match at tennis - the languid uncoiling of a John McEnroe against the icy precision of an Ivan Lendl - can fill and thrill a stadium. But there's something about a gangling figure in absurd knee pants, scowling down from the mound, shifting a wad of tobacco in his cheek, rearing back on one leg like an outsize flamingo and letting fly the round, hard, horsehide that appeals incomparably to the American heart.
Theories about the irresistible draw of baseball have been as abundant as rosy forecasts from the spring training camps, without ever zeroing in on the essence of the matter.
Novelist Philip Roth rhapsodizes over the diamond fever of his youth as a socializing force, a ``kind of secular church'' that reached into every corner of the nation to link millions of strangers ``in common loyalties, rituals, and antagonisms.''
Undeniably this aura of an extended family persists today, binding fans to each other in something like tribal unity, and to the players on the field below by a quasi-parental sense of proprietorship. Even the most inept ball club awakens the special affection reserved for less-gifted offspring.
Again, there are pundits who focus on the one-on-one confrontation at the plate, the decisive duel between pitcher and batter. ``Duel,'' they point out, conjures up an elemental romantic encounter, the clash of blades at dawn in a medieval forest clearing.
But the primal associations in baseball, they claim, go back even further. Although the pitcher may be 6 ft. 3 in., and the batter 5 ft. 8 in., it's a metaphorical showdown between little David hurling his minuscule slingshot and big Goliath waving the war club handed down from our cave-man ancestors. Will raw courage and pinpoint accuracy prevail over brute power?
Other charms that span genders and generations have been attributed to baseball, starting with the balletic grace of a running catch or a perfect hook slide. The leisurely pace of the game, it has been noted, encourages masterminding from the stands, providing a harmless outlet for dedicated second-guessers. People who might have trouble spelling ``strategy'' are quick and confident in dispensing it. What are the percentages for a left-handed power hitter in this park? If we bench him in favor of a bunt specialist - will the enemy riposte with a new pitcher?
The permutations are endless, and the amateur managers can stay up half the following night speculating on what would have happened if the professionals had had the good sense to consult them. Small boys, on the other hand, can wallow happily in statistics reflecting the transcendent merits of their idols.
Another plus cited for baseball is its neat balance between cooperative team effort and spectacular solos, between the elaborately charted mass maneuvers of football and the man-against-perfection lonerism of golf. The pitching ace needs strong fielding to protect his no-hitter; the cleanup batter gets an invaluable assist from the lead-off man worrying the basepaths.
What about the intangibles of atmosphere? The crack of ash against horsehide, especially in a green natural setting, is a whiff of pristine nature in an age of pushbutton controls. And baseball is a comfortably plebeian sport. The bleachers, where anyone can roast in the sun, gorge on hot dogs and soda pop, cheer the local stalwarts, scream insults at the umpire, and hope to snare an errant line drive are a citadel of democracy.
They are remarkably like the top gallery at an opera house. And therein lies the true secret of baseball's allure. It is quintessential theater, creating and prolonging tremendous suspense.
Football, basketball, and boxing, like hockey and soccer, are encased in fixed time frames; when the whistle blows, the game is over. But a ball game, as Yogi Berra sagely observed, ``ain't over 'til it's over.'' Just as in a crowded theater, when we settle into our seats, we have no idea what the final outcome will be - or even the next development.
Despite its nine-inning structure, baseball is relatively open-ended; within each three-out inning, anything can happen. Players can be shuffled, new tactics devised, with the improvisatory freedom of jazz. That means there's always room for a cavalry-rescue ending to stand the score on its head.
Even if the home team has stirred nothing but the breeze all afternoon, so long as a single out remains in the ninth there's a chance for a last-minute rally. Good old Charlie Weaksister, who hasn't nudged a ball out of the infield in six weeks, can suddenly snap out of his slump with a resounding blast over the right field wall. The opposition's Joe Ketchem, normally a glue-fingered shortstop, can boot an easy roller into an unplayable no-man's land in the outfield. Now the lucky draw to an inside straight of our pioneer gambling days has its echo in the hope that a fat pitch will be served up imprudently to our heavyweight slugger.
A cardinal rule of dramaturgy is to stretch out, postpone to the last possible moment the resolution of the conflict onstage, giving the apparent advantage first to one side, then to the other. What better example than a seesaw battle which arrives at the last half of the ninth with the score tied, two out and the bases full?
Emergency aid is summoned from the visitors' bullpen. We counter with our most formidable pinch hitter, a celebrated but lately fading muscle man. He runs up the count of balls and strikes to the ultimate three and two - then rattles off a series of long, rousing fouls, one of them inches away from a game-clinching home run. Could the Bard himself have devised a more gripping climax?
How does it end? Get thee to the ballpark and find out. Spring is here, boys and girls. Ring up the curtain! I mean, play ball!