Opening Day

THE thrill of the grass'' is the phrase glowingly used by Shoeless Joe Jackson in ``Field of Dreams'' to describe the epiphany of playing baseball. The phrase, both earthy and transcendental, captures what many Americans young and old have felt after chasing down a high fly ball in deep center on some nameless late summer afternoon. Leather sphere hits leather netting with a secure smack, and another inning is over. Our turn to bat. Baseball is the game ``most redolent of boyhood memories,'' says John Updike. As Joe Jackson says, ``I would have played it for nothing.''

Here in New England, the thrill of the grass must wait for the ground to unfreeze. Many of us still have snow on our front lawns. But this won't stop Red Sox fans from coming to Fenway Park today for the first home opener in years. The first toss of the season is by - who else? - local sweetheart and Olympic mega-star Nancy Kerrigan.

Yet rather than losing ourselves in sentiment about American ritual, tradition, the spring, and the national pastime's hold on the national psyche, perhaps the 1994 opening-day message should be: This is a year that baseball must prove itself.

More than ever, professional baseball, with its antitrust exemption and high salaries, offers the thrill of the cash. San Francisco's Barry Bonds makes $45,000 per game - the average player salary in 1974. Moreover, baseball's strength as a tradition will also undergo a test during the playoffs. Each league now contains three, not two, divisions. What used to be the simple logic of winners and losers in baseball now yields to the wild cards and expanded playoffs of other sports. The phrase ``media market'' explains the change.

Baseball is both sport and entertainment. To retain its claim as a sport, the game needs a distinct character. It is trite but true to say too much money can spoil that character.

Still, it is reassuring to see Michael Jordan playing Double-A ball. Basketball's best-ever must be finding baseball more sport than entertainment just now. Imagine how teammates fresh from high school must feel sitting next to ``Mike'' on the bench.

As Red Sox fans in a division with World Series winner Toronto, we too might find this season more sport than entertainment. We have chased the championship for 76 years. As Red Sox fan Updike once noted, ``All baseball fans believe in miracles. The question is, how many do you believe in?''

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