Baseball's claim to be the national pastime is regularly challenged these days, and indeed the polls tell us that football has really been No. 1 now for quite some time. Well, maybe so in terms of asking fans which game they'd rather watch on a given Saturday or Sunday. But surely no other sport can begin to match baseball's unique hold on the public at large or its place in the daily fabric of life.
We see this even in wintertime with all the ''hot stove league'' talk of free agent signings, trades, and Hall of Fame elections. We see it again in spring training, where baseball stands out as the only sport capable of getting people interested in its practice sessions. And of course we see it most of all each October, when the eyes of virtually the entire nation - serious fans, casual fans, even non-fans - are riveted on the World Series.
The explanation for this fascination can be summed up in one word: tradition. The current contest between the Orioles and Phillies, which moves here for the weekend following the first two games in Baltimore, is the 80th edition of the fall classic - which makes for a lot of memories. The Super Bowl, by contrast, is still a ''teen-ager'' in the historical league. And anyway, even the most ardent football fan could hardly argue that this one game, with its two weeks of hype and three hours of action, can rival the sustained interest and day-by-day conversational aspect of baseball's best-of-seven showcase.
The 1983 World Series has all these things, too, starting with the fact that it is the first-ever confrontation for a major sports championship between these old industrial and shipping centers located less than 100 miles apart and bearing so many physical, cultural, and historical resemblances. There hasn't been such a neighbor vs. neighbor rivalry since those ''Subway Series'' between the New York Yankees and the old Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1940s and '50s - and of course this one has already been nicknamed the ''Metroliner'' or ''I-95'' Series , depending upon one's transportation preference.
As for their similarities, both cities are steeped in national history - Philadelphia with its Revolutionary War aura as the home of Ben Franklin, Independence Hall, and the Liberty Bell; Baltimore as the site of Fort McHenry, where Francis Scott Key wrote the Star-Spangled Banner during the War of 1812. Both also found themselves subsequently overshadowed by more glamorous neighbors , New York and Washington. And both have staged resurgences in recent years, spending hundreds of millions of dollars in redevelopment and restoration projects such as Philadelphia's Society Hill and Independence Mall and Baltimore's much-publicized Harborplace.
In baseball lore too, both cities go just about all the way back. Philadelphia was a charter member of the National League in 1876, dropped out for a few years, but returned in 1883 and is thus celebrating its centennial this season. Baltimore also had professional teams from the 1870s on, and the original Orioles featuring John McGraw and Wee Willie Keeler won three National League pennants in the 1890s before the city lost its major league status from 1903 until 1954.
The franchises have strong similarities in the modern era too. The Orioles won their city's first World Series in 1966, and since the beginning of divisonal play in 1969 they've been in the playoffs seven times and the World Series five - more than any other team in either league. Meanwhile the Phillies , once a virtual synonym for baseball futility (two pennants and no world championships in nearly a century) have staged an equally impressive diamond renaissance. In the past eight seasons they've captured five division titles ( 1976-77-78-80-83), they won both the National League pennant and their first world championship ever in 1980, and now, of course, they have another league title and a chance for another Series victory.
As for household names, the Phillies have the lion's share this year. There's Mike Schmidt, the major league home run leader with 40, along with Steve Carlton , who won his 300th career game this year, both of whom were heroes of the 1980 victory over Kansas City. And there's also that reuinted trio of stars from Cincinnati's old Big Red Machine of the '70s - Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, and Tony Perez.
Add up the ages of this quintet and it's no wonder there've been jokes all season about the ''Wheeze Kids'' - a play on the nickname of the pennant-winning 1950 Whiz Kids. Now that they've made it this far, though, all that experience could be a big factor - as demonstrated when Morgan and Garry Maddox, another veteran of playoff and World Series action, hit the home runs that lifted the Phillies to a 2-1 opening game victory behind the masterful pitching of Cy Young Award candidate John Denny and relief ace Al Holland.
But the Orioles also have plenty of players with post-season experience and are the same sort of pitching-rich, hard-hitting, fundamentally sound club that has invariably represented the city in recent years. They led the majors in home runs and had the game's best one-two punch in Cal Ripken and Eddie Murray, one of whom is almost certain to be the American League's regular season MVP. They have a brilliant pitching staff led by left-handers Scott McGregor and Mike Flanagan plus spectacular rookie Mike Boddicker. And there's also Jim Palmer, who doesn't figure as prominently in the team's pitching plans as he once did, but who is its link to the past as the only remaining member of all five previous Oriole pennant winners.
The organizations are similar too. They spend money when it makes sense, signing their own stars to lucrative contracts or making occasional forays into the free agent market, but by and large they eschew the George Steinbrenner-Ted Turner-Gene Autry mode of wild spending in favor of building through the farm system and astute trading.
Baseball being the nostalgia-filled game it is, however, what is happening here and now is only part of the story each October as fans relive their own memories as well as those they've heard and read about.
What Baltimore rooter can forget the 1966 sweep of the Koufax-Drysdale Dodgers, or Brooks Robinson's defensive heroics at third base in the 1970 victory over Cincinnati? But not all Oriole memories are bright ones. They were the heavily favored losers to the ''Miracle Mets'' of 1969, and they lost dramatic, seven-game battles to Pittsburgh in 1971 and 1979.
As for Philadelphians, of course, they have to look back only three years to recall their team's biggest moment of baseball glory.
But Series lore is a lot more than the exploits of the home team. It's Babe Ruth's ''called shot'' home run in 1932 - and who cares whether he really was or wasn't pointing to the stands? It's those game-winning homers by Bill Mazeroski and Carlton Fisk; the game-saving catches of Willie Mays, Al Gionfriddo, and Sandy Amoros; Don Larsen's perfect game; and so on through the years.
The fall classic is unpredictable, too. Big stars have been known to flop while lesser-known players sometimes grab the spotlight - though this doesn't really happen as frequently as popular folklore would have it. The roster of Series heroes over the years has many of the same names you'll find in Cooperstown - Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Dizzy Dean, Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, etc.. Every once in a while, though, some less famous player like Billy Martin, Bobby Richardson, Gene Tenace, or Bucky Dent picks this most propitious of all times to get hot - adding another chapter to the tale.
And soon enough, of course, it will all be over for 1983, with another name or two added to the roster of heroes, a new world champion, and 25 other teams echoing the old cry of ''Wait 'til next year.''