Passe Pastime?

Major League Baseball faces more adversity than a springtime blizzard in Boston and other northern cities as the 1997 season opens this week. The national game is struggling to hold onto its shrinking place in the American sports fan's heart.

Forecasts of declining crowds and flagging interest have particular poignancy this year, which marks a half century since Jackie Robinson cracked baseball's color barrier. Robinson opened the way for baseball to become more truly the national pastime. In his cleat marks came legions of black major leaguers who broke records and set new standards of athletic prowess.

Now major league scouts have trouble finding black kids in American cities who even want to play the game. The glory lies elsewhere - in basketball and football, even in golf, with the rise of superstar Tiger Woods. That gravitation to other games cuts across racial and city-suburban lines. But it's probably most pronounced among youngsters who are seriously thinking of sports as a ticket to a better life.

But baseball's prospect is hardly uniformly clouded. While interest is declining in the US, it's picking up in other parts of the world. The big overseas hotbeds of baseball - like the Caribbean and parts of Asia - are turning out top-notch talent.

The growing number of Japanese players wanting a stint in the American major leagues (preferably with the Yankees) is one sign of the game's wider vitality. And there are reports of fine young players developing in Europe too.

It is not inconceivable that baseball, with its pinpoint skills of hitting, pitching, and fielding, may yet win some young Americans away from the more fast-paced "physical" team sports. It is inconceivable that this most venerable of American big-time sports won't retain some hold on its fans, some place in their hearts, even as other games - soccer, for instance - continue to diversify the country's athletic tastes.

Baseball, after all, is life in miniature, with its lulls, dramatic bursts, and indeterminate contest lengths. It's also laden with history, as Jackie Robinson's remarkable story unfailingly reminds us.

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