An enduring passion for the national pastime

My big hero when I was six years old was Babe Ruth. I'd hear my father and his friends, huddling around a crystal set, shout, "It's a homer! Babe Ruth has hit another."

And I'd go running around the neighborhood shouting at the top of my voice, "Babe Ruth has hit a home run!"

I hadn't the faintest idea who Ruth was or what he had done. But I knew he had done something wonderful - and that he was someone to be shouted about.

Indeed, before long I would be joined by other little boys as we loudly acclaimed Ruth's accomplishment.

So it was that I fell in love with baseball even before I really knew what baseball was all about. And that love affair has continued ever since - except for a couple of years ago when the players struck and the World Series had to be called off.

"I'm off baseball for life," I told anyone who would listen. But then came last season when big Mark McGwire swatted baseball back into my heart again.

So it was that when the St. Louis Cardinals' "Big Mac" came to Washington early this month for a pre-season game, I was in the stands at RFK Stadium, sitting at my favorite spot just back of third base.

But I wasn't there just to see the action on the field; I, along with a wife who rather puts up with my passion for sports of all kinds, had arrived by midmorning in order to see McGwire take batting practice. And we were rewarded with several long, towering hits off his bat that were of superhuman proportions.

I guess you have to be a baseball fan to feel the way I did. But hits like those lift one's spirits. I looked around. Everyone was smiling.

I read a piece in The New York Times the other day that I thought was off the plate. The writer was seeking to make the point that home runs "are bad for baseball." But when I got down to where he hailed the "relative paucity" of home runs by the team he was hailing, the New York Yankees, I quit on the piece.

What really astute student of the game, like a Red Smith or a Shirley Povich, would ever write about the "relative paucity" of anything related to baseball?

Could you ever imagine Red or Shirley bewailing the "paucity" of Pepper Martins taking wonderful belly slides to elude tags?

The writer - Nicholas Dawidoff - did say something I thought rather sensible. He writes of "the Lilliputian ball fields that are the rage these days."

Right. The ball fields are getting smaller and smaller as owners try to satisfy the craving of fans for home runs. So now we get a lot of homers that, a few years ago, would simply be long fly balls that outfielders would easily gather in.

But McGwire hits Babe Ruth kinds of homers. Indeed, in park after park as he reached his awesome 70 record, McGwire was sending balls far out into or beyond parks where homers had never gone before. No cheap homers for "Big Mac."

After batting practice, we joined a large group of St. Louis Cardinals fans for a party in a room behind the stands.

We call our club "The Stan Musial Society," after the Card fielder who was the best lefthand hitter I ever saw.

Yes, I saw Ted Williams. And he was great. But I take "Stan the Man." And now I will get letters.

Anyway, you can see I am, like most baseball fans, very prejudiced in favor of my club.

And I like to brag about how in the many, many World Series in which the Cards participated, my team had the edge over the American League teams they played, and - how I enjoy mentioning this - even over the great New York Yankees.

Yes, you are right: I've never liked the Yankees. They have always been a rich-owner's team. And often, as I see it, they were thus able to buy the players they needed to succeed.

The Cardinals were, at least in the early years, a poor-man's team. The ingenious Branch Rickey brought them pennants by developing players in the minors and then feeding them into the Cards lineup when they were ready to play Big League ball.

It was a brilliant, new idea back then. Now all clubs do this.

Oh, yes, the game we saw: The Cards beat the Montreal Expos, 3-2.

McGwire lifted a couple of awesome foul balls, but no home runs.

But just seeing the big man take those mighty swings: It was enough.

This old baseball fan kept smiling for the rest of the day.

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