Baseball and the case for 'small is beautiful'
Well, here it is - the next year we told one another to wait until, way back around World Series time. Even when it snows or hails or blows up a 40-m.p.h. gale - and it usually does - the first week of the baseball season possesses a special charm. Long on hope and short on box scores, it is the busy season for dealers in predictions and hawkers of souvenir pennants. Off-season trades are still regarded as strokes of genius. The boo has not yet been reinvented. Sportswriters, having perfected their latest theories in the Florida sun, float them in the northern April air like wind-blown hot dog wrappers, and nobody can shoot them down - for at least another week.
Our favorite theory of the spring - so far - was hoisted by Peter Gammons of the Boston Globe. It rests firmly upon one statistic, and what early-April theorist needs more? Gammons notes that the St. Louis Cardinals won the 1982 World Series with a team that hit fewer home runs than any other in either league. ''Are singles hitters and base stealers about to take over the game?'' the headline above the story inquires.
There is a certain poetic justice to this dream that the cheers and the seven-figure salaries may be going to small, clever stylists who can execute the hit-and-run and the suicide squeeze rather than to the King Kong home-run sluggers who strike out twice for every time they hit one out of the park. (See the last stanza of ''Casey at the Bat.'')
The most popular underdog in any sport is the smart player who triumphs by craft and strategy over brute strength. (See the last scene in a ''Tom and Jerry'' cartoon.)
The theory of the subtle superstar is such a nice notion that it ought to be applied outside of baseball. Students of hockey, for instance, building their case on the fairly frail shoulders of Wayne Gretzky, can argue that a new breed is taking over their sport too, with agility and mental quickness counting for more than body-banging and wicked slapshots.
Then there's Jimmy Connors, the Pete Rose of tennis, whacking out his equivalent of line-drive singles and doubles. Connors has improved his serve, but never, never will he win a contest based on the ace, the home run of tennis. Yet in 1982 he reclaimed the game from the power-servers like Ivan Lendl and John McEnroe.
So sports caps off, in this mega-everything world, to the singles hitters and the feathery stick-handlers and the touch-volleyers of life.
And while we're pushing the argument that small is beautiful, why stop with sports? Must movies cost $30 million and concentrate on special effects in order to succeed? Modest, superbly crafted films like ''Breaker Morant,'' ''My Brilliant Career,'' and ''Mephisto'' suggest otherwise.
Has the time come to discount the doorstopper of a biography and the historical novel that could make a weight lifter groan? Who will have the courage to produce a bumper sticker, ''Bring back the short story and the one-act play''?
Even the Broadway musical - the home run of stage productions - has found its style as a singles hitter since the ingeniously small ''A Chorus Line.''
In the general ''Atta boy!'' optimism of the first week of baseball, we're prepared to believe anything. As we munch our peanuts and Cracker Jack (and don't care if we never get back), we can even foresee the ultimate scale-down: arms control. The singles hitters will take over the Pentagon and the Kremlin from the heavy, heavy hitters. In the great ball game of life, diplomats, not generals, will bat cleanup for a change.
Let the miniaturists and the finesse-artists have their chance, we say - on and off the field. The big sluggers have been closing their eyes and swinging for the fences quite long enough.