Trying to keep your eye on the ball

The thing to do is to act as if this spring is like any other spring. That is to say, the thing to do is to pretend there will be no baseball strike next month.

The way to do this is never, never to think about money in connection with sports.

And the way to do this is to put on your rose-colored sunfield glasses and recall baseball as it was in the past, before it was Big Business -- you think.

Take a deep whiff of ballpark hot dog, and imagine yourself back in the bleachers of four decades ago. 1941 was a great year for baseball, with not a dollar sign in the headlines -- only rich, juicy scorekeeping statistics. Ted Williams batted .406. Bob Feller won 25 games. It was just 40 springs ago that Joe DiMaggio began his 56-game hitting streak, lining a single to left field in a game that the Yankees lost to the White Sox, 13-1. A disgruntled home crowd of 9,040, scattered through Yankee Stadium, hardly imagined they were seeing history.

The way never, never to think of Big Business and baseball is to think of feats like these -- to concentrate like a hitter on ball and bat.

That's what Bernard Malamud did in his baseball novel, "The Natural." The hero really is a bat, a legendary weapon called Wonderboy, as marvelous in its properties as King Arthur's Excalibur.

Wonderboy's owner explained to all the .250 hitters: "This tree near the river where I lived was split by lightning. I liked the wood inside of it, so I cut me out a bat . . ., I always kept it oiled with sweet oil and boned it so it wouldn't chip."

Joe DiMaggio rubbed his bats all over with a soupbone. "I'd bone a bat," Joe told an interviewer, "Then use olive oil and resin and then burn it, just put it over a flame to make it sticky. "Then I'd sand it down a little."

And that's how DiMaggio's myth-making bat got as black as smoke.

The trouble is, even concentrating on bats doesn't work this spring. A couple of weeks ago 330 workers for Hillerich & Bradsby -- the makers of Louisville Slugger bats -- went on strike themselves.

In 1884 John Hillerich, a wood-turner, stayed up most of one summer night to produce the first custommade bat for a clouter named Peter Browning, who, up until then, had whittled his own. Today about nine out of 10 major league players use Hillerich & Bradsby bats -- maybe five or six dozen a season, made of select ash turned on a hand lathe by skilled craftsmen who believe they're worth more then $6.35 an hour.

Nobody knows what Pete Browning paid Hillerich for his Wonderboy. Nobody knows what Pete Browning got paid for hitting with it.

Joe DiMaggio was paid $37,500 in 1941. His first year with the Yankees he got $8,500.

Today Pete Rose gets paid almost 100 times that amount. The average salary for a class of '81 major leaguer is estimated at $185,000.

There you go. It's so hard to keep the dollar sign off the statistics this spring. Percentages are what the agents make. A strike is what a union calls.

If the players go on strike next month, it won't be for money -- exactly. The issue is the right of a player to become a free agent, without the "compensation" of another player going from the club the free agent signs with to the club he left -- an act, it is argued, that puts all players halfway back into the chattel status from which they so recently emerged.

Nobody wants a strike, everybody says. The clubhouse lawyers predict the issue will get resolved by last-minute-to-midnight negotiations.

But how we wish even the shadow wasn't there. It's like the shadow that gets cast over home plate in the late afternoon, and distracted even Joe DiMaggio in the spring of '41.

We know it's unfair to ask heroes to be above it all. Mightly Casey, we are sure, had his utility bills to meet. Forty years later Joe DiMaggio makes pitches for a coffee-maker. Ex-athletes have to eat too -- and probably a little more than the rest of us. But this spring just don't tell us about it. All we know is what's the count, who's on first, and . . . here comes the pitch.m

Call us childish as we sit in the bleachers, getting mustard all over our bubble gum, but our question for the spring of 1981 is this: Why can't athletes, for once, pretend they're doing it for the love of the game? What else are we paying them all th at money for?

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