Baseball throws fans a change-up: fun

Forget steroids and labor strife. This season is about phenomenal performance and a photo finish.

Baseball often can seem awfully serious. What with the august solemnity of opening day and the weight of a history that stretches back to the days of muskets, baseball sometimes appears to be still bound in corsets, while basketball and football careen headlong into the age of bare midriffs and wardrobe malfunctions.

This is a sport that for much of the past decade has proved most adept at self-destruction - from a never-ending cycle of labor strife to steroid scandals and prophecies of its demise among young Americans.

Yet this season, a peculiar dynamic has emerged: Baseball is having fun.

True, that's not unheard of in recent history. But whether it was the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa home-run duel of 1998 or the epic New York Yankees- Arizona Diamondback World Series in 2001, all the good of recent years seemed merely a bulwark against the bad - from flagging interest in baseball to the shadow of Sept. 11.

This year, however, it's as if baseball has taken a vacation from its self-recriminating self to enjoy a season of unqualified delight.

The Season of the Steroid never materialized, and in its place has been the rivalry of the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, which continues this weekend in a conflict that not even Jimmy Carter could cool. There has been the National League wild-card race, which makes the presidential election look clear-cut by comparison. And there is Barry Bonds, whose nightly feats have practically knocked Babe Ruth from the pedestal of mythology and have staked a claim to the once unthinkable: that Bonds could be the greatest hitter in the history of the game.

In baseball, this is no small thing. For all the greatness of a quarterback such as Johnny Unitas or a basketball player like Bill Russell, neither conjures the sheer historical significance of a Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, or Ted Williams. To shoulder aside these names is to ask for Mount Rushmore to be recast, to add a modern epilogue to The Iliad. There is a perfection to baseball history, complete in itself and locked in the inviolable tones of black and white.

Yes, Hank Aaron might have more career home runs than Ruth, but there is no serious debate - rightly or wrongly - about whether Aaron was a better hitter. That Bonds could even raise this sort of possibility is a testament to the magnitude of his achievements.

Seven hundred career home runs does not begin to describe the ominous coil of his bat. Indeed, home runs are hardly the best gauge of his greatness. Allegations of steroid use might cast shadows over his record 73-home-run season, but they do not dull the way he hits - combining preternatural patience with an uncanny ability to strike the ball. Williams once spoke of being able to choose whether he wanted to hit the bottom or top half of a ball. Bonds seems as if he can count the stitches.

At an age when most ballplayers are winding down, Bonds has uncovered some secret formula for hitting. "There are almost two Barry Bonds: You have the great Barry Bonds [before 2000] and the transcendental Barry Bonds [since]," says Jules Tygiel, author of "Past Time: Baseball as History."

Almost no one except devoted seamheads knows that Bonds could break Ruth's record of total times on base in a season - a result of his hitting (majors-leading .370 average) and his discerning eye (which has contributed to his 213 walks, already an all-time record). Better known is Ichiro Suzuki's attempt to break the record for hits in a season - a mark that has stood since 1920.

It has long been baseball's lot to bounce back from the brink of calamity. The Black Sox gambling scandal of 1919 required assurances from the president of the United States about the integrity of the game. The advent of free agency in the 1970s seemed to threaten baseball's very existence, and the labor strife of the past two decades corroded a public already turning to other sports. But once again, the product on the field has brought brighter horizons.

With a handful of games remaining, five teams - including Bonds's San Francisco Giants, the Houston Astros, the Chicago Cubs, and the world champion Florida Marlins - are still chasing the National League wild-card slot. And New York and Boston will do everything short of bringing out siege engines and vats of boiling oil when they face each other for the final time in the regular season.

Unlike other sports, where games happen every other day - or even once a week - the end of the baseball season creates its own energy in daily dramas. This weekend, the crescendo begins in earnest - no Janet Jackson necessary.

"Baseball always has something to offer," says Tygiel. "It's that day-in, day-out attachment."

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