The Unspoiled Crack of the Bat

Like no other American institution, baseball has remained an unchanged constant

Thirty years ago this month, the St. Louis Cardinals finished baseball's World Series in Boston, defeating Carl Yastrzemski and the Red Sox after seven thrilling games. My family lived in St. Louis at the time, and my father and I went to the airport to welcome home the world-champion Cardinals. Dad put me on his shoulders while I hoisted into the air with my five-year-old arms a Cardinals pennant for Bob Gibson, Curt Flood, and all my other heroes to see.

I wore a Cardinals cap so worn from constant use that the felt had disappeared completely from the bill, leaving only cardboard.

1967. That year might as well be plucked from Roman antiquity, so fast do the currents of American history move. What hasn't changed since 1967? We've seen the rise of feminism, the civil rights movement, a major defeat of our military forces, and the end of the cold war. We've left powdery footprints on the moon's surface and watched the microchip affect virtually every aspect of our lives. We've helped develop the god-like power to clone animal life, and we've designed an IBM computer that can out-think the world's best chess player.

Does anything remain constant in our culture? The answer, quite simply, is no, with one exception: baseball.

With customary fanfare, the World Series opens tomorrow night in Miami with the rules - and esprit - of the game virtually unchanged since 1967. Whatever has happened outside our ballparks during the past 30 years, inside them, between the stripes, fleet-flying time has been a wasp in amber.

Virtually every detail of the game - from walks to balks to bunts to home runs - has remained exactly the same. Sure, the pitcher's mound has been lowered a few inches and the American League has adopted the designated hitter rule. But this is like changing a few wall paintings in a grand old house.

Baseball's durability

Maybe 30 years doesn't impress you. OK, let's go back further - way back - to 1903. That was the year of the very first World Series, with the Boston Beaneaters defeating the Pittsburgh Pirates behind the heroic pitching of Cy Young. The game you'll see played tomorrow night in Miami and the game played by Young in 1903 is the same game in virtually every way, from the suicide squeeze to the sacrifice fly. These championship contests are separated by 94 years. The US army still had a cavalry in 1903. Now we have nuclear weapons. And baseball's the same.

The amazing durability of baseball has been widely noted for years, of course. But like the game itself, this staying power is worth celebrating again and again - especially at World Series time, and especially as America's cult-like hunger for the new and different accelerates toward an uncertain 21st century.

Here's a question to ponder: Name a single major American institution that's gone virtually unchanged since 1903.

Name just one.

The presidency? Architecture? Farming? No, no, no. Music? Fashion? Medicine? No, no, no.

Perhaps another sport? No again. Modern football and basketball didn't even exist in 1903. The question stumps me.

My wife mentions Thanksgiving, but it's only one day. The timing of this holiday has changed in this century and a huge turkey certainly wasn't affordable to most Americans in 1903. Virtually no one could afford it then. And how about religion? Even tradition-bound Catholicism has dispensed with Latin in this century and the Second Vatican Council has brought other far-reaching changes.

Only baseball is the same. Only baseball. To be sure, a wide assortment of villains and swindlers have tried mightily over the years to change - even destroy - the game. But baseball has survived all challenges: greedy owners, unyielding players, inflated salaries, gambling, drug use, free agency.

Most recently, the 1994 strike ended without crippling the game somehow, and now young players like Ken Griffey Jr. once again are chasing the records of Ruth and Maris. Just last year, at Yankee Stadium, I watched Dwight Gooden pitch a masterful, electrifying no-hitter after battling back from multiple drug addiction.

But why baseball? Why do we seem so unwilling or unable to alter it? Nothing could be more unusual in our disposable, change-a-minute, Saran Wrap culture.

In America, half of all marriages don't last, a three-year-old car is considered old, and our attention span is so short now that we prefer our news in bytes.

We seek constant variety like we seek our next breath, and Madison Avenue and the rest of corporate America are happy to oblige, constantly repackaging, rearranging, and remaking who we are and what we think.

Appreciating its simplicity

But against all such forces, baseball doesn't budge. Perhaps it's the sheer beauty of the game - the artful dip of a spinning curve ball, the rainbow arch of a home run - that leaves us singularly content, unable to think of a way to make it better or more modern. But we've dammed up gorgeous rivers and bulldozed beautiful old neighborhoods in the name of making things better.

Part of it, then, must also be the ingeniousness of baseball's rules. The game's played without a clock, freeing us temporarily from the constraints of time. It's a leisurely game that nonetheless demands blistering speed, and the only game in which the defense has the ball.

But I believe there's still more. With all our science and gadgets and frontier-breaking, we are flinging ourselves at great speed into an uncertain future like astronauts shot into space. We want - and need - to take something along for the trip, something that soothes us with its simple familiarity, a single object against which all things ahead can be referenced and measured. Perhaps other cultures have their own such charm, one they preserve against all hazards. For us Americans, it just might be baseball. We know, deep down, that we can't give it up or we'll lose our bearings completely.

What lies ahead of us in the next century? Perhaps the best gauge is to look back again 94 years to that first World Series. In October 1903, airplanes had not yet been invented. There were no TVs, no nuclear weapons, no global warming, no superhighways, no computers, no trips to Mars. Snatch up any American from 1903 and drop him in downtown Miami tomorrow night and a baffled, uncomprehending madman is what you'll have on your hands.

But lead him just a few blocks to the lights and the green grass and the buzzing crowd of the World Series contest - and simply point. He'll understand everything then. It's all he'll understand. An ump will yell, "Play ball." A bat will crack. Leather will pop.

Baseball's like that.

* Mike Tidwell is a writer and inveterate baseball fan who lives in suburban Washington.

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