America's pastime may be past its time

The focus of many of America's sports-loving fans this week is on baseball's World Series between the two New York teams, the Yankees and the Mets.

Why?

A very astute question.

After all, not even the most fanatical nor demented among the populace are claiming that either is a team for the ages, for the last century, for the decade, or maybe even for this season. Let's just agree they are the only two teams still playing in October's fourth week.

They are decent - more than journeymen but less than memorable.

The idea of the first subway series in more than 40 years has charm and appeal. But some sticklers for accuracy point out that while subway means underground, the way to either Yankee or Shea Stadium is not underground but elevated. Puleeze! An airplane is still called an airplane even when it's not in the air.

Then earlier this week we witnessed the baffling spectacle of a Yankee player flinging a broken bat at a Met player. It would all be dismissed as simply silly if it weren't so potentially incendiary. The bat thrower tried various explanations, none of which made any sense because you can't make sense out of nonsense.

The point is that this is not a series that is galvanizing the public, although to be fair, baseball has pretty much lost its ability to galvanize us like it did in its storied past. This is for a lot of oft-discussed reasons: Tickets have gotten way too expensive, as has parking and food; there are too many teams, which has diluted the product; the exorbitant salaries; players who often seem to be ingrates and who don't try; poor management at the top.

This is only a start.

And perhaps above all, it was better - much better - when the World Series was played in the afternoons in bright sunshine, instead of nights in biting cold. Back then, productivity slowed in the workplace and learning slowed in the schools as radios blared the series. Nothing wrong with that. Baseball grabbed us and wouldn't let go, nor would we of it.

But a player throwing a bat at another gives us yet another reason to allow our disenchantment to grow. That isn't baseball. It's thuggery.

However, here's the fascinating part: On another level, we still love baseball to death.

Why?

A very astute question.

What we love is not what baseball is but what it was. There is just something about watching baseball that creates a comforting feeling about bygone days. Of course, we always romanticize the past. People love to glory in cowboy lore, but the life of the cowboy was not at all the stuff of glamour. Much of it was the stuff of filth, which is why they smelled so bad.

In many ways, baseball looks like it always did. Nine players. Umpires. Fences with distances noted. Even better, baseball is orderly. Look at those straight white lines, the squared-off bases, nicely smoothed infield dirt. It always has looked like this. You can't sit at a baseball game and not think of baseball games past.

This week, we watch, for example, Yankee center fielder Bernie Williams, but we see Joe DiMaggio; we watch shortstop Derek Jeter, but we see Phil Rizzuto. We watch Mets manager Bobby Valentine, but we see Gil Hodges; we watch Mike Hampton pitch, but we see Tom Seaver.

We remember sitting in Yankee or Shea - or any other stadium - and watching games with our dads, if we were fortunate. Met catcher Mike Piazza is terrific, but many of us look at him and see Roy Campanella. Wallowing in baseball's past feels good.

The inestimable writer Roger Kahn wrote a landmark book, "The Boys of Summer," about the old Brooklyn Dodgers. He notes that he "covered a team that no longer exists in a demolished ballpark for a newspaper that is dead."

That's a metaphor for baseball. It was, it still sort of is, but will it be?

Consider that while baseball held its premier event of the year this week, it didn't even come close to knocking football off the sports page. All that happened was baseball and football shared the space.

As an example, a Colorado newspaper had five stories on the front of its sports section this week: two on pro football, one on college football, one on hockey, and one on the World Series. It had two photographs, one baseball and one football.

The football picture was much larger.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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