'Take me out to the (big bucks) ball game'

The baseball season is starting this week, and no one is even asking whether in wartime it will be permitted to continue. We are in a protracted war. The president tells us there is much more ahead, but he is keeping a peacetime atmosphere, as much as he possibly can. So – no doubt about it – unless the shooting war becomes intense, with the casualties beginning to run high, baseball will go on.

Indeed, even then, probably nothing will stop the game. Back in World War II, President Roosevelt gave thought to ending a civilian sports activity that might well look frivolous with millions of our young men going into the war and the body bags coming back in great numbers. But FDR ruled for baseball, determining that it was good for the morale of Americans to go out and relax while watching what had become America's "national pastime."

On a short military assignment to the Pentagon back in 1943, I was able to get away to see a Saturday game at the Washington Senators' park. The home club was playing the St. Louis Browns. Most of the names in the lineups were those of old-timers who had been brought back to play after the younger players had volunteered or been drafted.

This time, of course, there is no draft. But it might be coming. President Bush says he has all the manpower he needs. But when he continues to talk of other targets of terrorism that lie ahead – well, my guess is that he will have to turn to the draft. And he should. It is the fair way to distribute the burden of fighting this war.

But if the young men are drafted, the old-timers will once again take their places on the baseball field.

Baseball itself remains the same as it was back in the 1800s, when the game was played in sandlots and in a more simplified form. Then came the teams and the leagues. Big-time baseball is a game of highly honed skills. But at best it still is just about throwing and catching and hitting a ball and running. I find most games absorbing and exciting. I once took a couple of British friends to see the Red Sox play at Boston's Fenway Park. While I had a great time and was up on my feet, shouting, several times, they sat quietly and yawned. Baseball isn't for everybody.

My wife and I took in a spring training game near Orlando, Fla., in early March and sat through nine innings of wind-chilling weather. A nearby jokester, numb like the rest of us, finally quipped loudly: "I think we all had better move to Florida." But we were still having a wonderful time! We really were.

The Atlanta Braves were playing the Florida Marlins. We arrived an hour early to see the teams take infield and outfield practice before the game. We had seats about 10 rows above first base – my favorite place to watch both the infield action and the outfielders running and catching balls.

It was a good game, even though the regulars played only a few innings and other players, hoping to make the team, had their chances. The Braves won, 5 to 1. The Braves' two Jones boys, Chipper and Andruw, both got some long hits that helped decide the outcome.

But, besides that cold day, there were some other downsides to the game. I paid $5 for a hot dog. The two of us shared it. Later I yelled at a hawkster, "A bag of peanuts!" He passed one over to me. $3.75! Yep, a bigger bag than the one we used to get for a nickel or dime years ago. But, as always, mostly shells.

These little "Grapefruit League" parks are beauties, holding a good-sized crowd. But the prices are so high now. I paid $22 for each of our two tickets. And this was just to watch athletes in training!

As I looked down on the game, a nearby fan helpfully pointed out to me several players on the field making millions of dollars. I know this is also going on in professional football and basketball. I'm told that these millions are what the athletes get in return for drawing large TV audiences, who pull in the advertising and the big bucks. Something like that.

But I'm not at all happy about it. In my younger days, there was only one Babe Ruth, making an astronomical "$100,000" a year. Most of the players' salaries were very low. Those fellows loved the game and played mostly for fun.

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