Play ball!

TWO days earlier they'd have been throwing snowballs. But now it's ''another openin' of another show,'' as an old Broadway musical put it: the start of the major-league baseball season.

Long gone are the days when baseball's larger-than-life heroes were romanticized by an awestruck public.

Mercifully departed - at least for the time being - are the recent years when spring's first ball was thrown out under threat of strike, by player or umpire.

Today's game blends sport and business. Sport for the fan, who briefly escapes daily challenges in the box-score exploits of his local team - and in the latest news of players and managers with broader appeal. One is Pete Rose, now of Montreal: He's chasing Ty Cobb's all-time record for basehits. Another is colorful Yogi Berra: He's the latest manager trying to coexist with Yankee owner George Steinbrenner. He was manager of the Yankees once before - pre-Steinbrenner.

Baseball's business side is prominent, too. Television revenues are crucial to clubs' financial success. Over the next six years the teams will rake in a cool $1 billion from TV. As in other professional sports the athletes' salaries rise ever higher. Among the highly paid but fractious New York Yankees the average is over $400,000 a year.

Like the athletes' pockets, cash registers at the turnstiles jingle. Attendance last year set a new record - over 45 million - for the sixth time in seven years. The mysterious-yet-elemental pull of America's national pastime remains on many youngsters of all ages - and on their children and grandchildren.

Play ball!

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