Down in the count, but still swinging

Baseball may have lost some of its mythological status - but not its fans.

Heresy is a strong word. But for true fans of baseball, the words of Donald Fehr in front of a Senate committee, on the use of performance-enhancing drugs by baseball players, came close.

The problem, the head of the players' association said, isn't baseball, it's the law. Supplements like androstenedione are legal and available to anyone who seeks them, he told the committee.

"I urge you to reconsider the law," he told the panel. "If that's not good policy, change that."

On strictly legal ground, of course, Fehr may have had a point, but the hearing wasn't about legality. It was about fairness. It was about athletes being positive role models for children. And, above all else, it was about baseball, America's national pastime.

In a country where sports are watched and worshipped, baseball has always been special. Its tales and long history are woven into American culture.

Kids play it on the White House lawn. It's been more than a game. It's been the embodiment of a Rockwellian mythology. And "If you make it illegal we will stop" didn't exactly mesh with "If you build it he will come," the signature line from "Field of Dreams," the quintessential baseball-is-America movie.

Steroids aren't the only problem baseball faces as the opening day of the 2004 season dawns Saturday. Last year's playoffs scored great ratings, but soon after the World Series was over, the champion Florida Marlins were dismantled. Critics say the league hasn't had a real commissioner for years.

Baseball's "haves," such as the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox, continue to amass talent and raise ticket prices, while a legion of have-not teams struggle to stay afloat. The Montreal Expos draw so few people at their "home" ballpark that they will play 22 games in Puerto Rico this summer, while the league "shops" them for the best stadium deal.

It's enough to make some fans wonder if baseball has lost its way. "It's not just the steroids. It''s the player movement and the salaries and the ticket prices," says lawyer Ken Ryan, while buying tickets at the Baltimore Orioles team store in Washington. "The game isn't the same. Pricing has pushed it into a corporate venue. I'm here buying tickets to take out a client, not for myself."

"The truth is that Major League Baseball is completely out of touch with its consumers...parents and kids," says Keith Allen, whose 7-year-old son Ross plays Little League in suburban Washington. "In the end, we make a lot of trips to minor league games. The price is right, if you get to the game 10 minutes early you can get great seats, and the players are excited to meet the fans and give autographs."

And yet in some respects, Major League Baseball has never been healthier. In early March, MLB announced it had sold 3 million tickets online for 2004 spring training and regular season, a 130 percent increase compared with the same time in 2003.

Meanwhile baseball's long-term fan base looks good. Little League is still extremely popular. The number of kids who play it today is higher in real terms and in percentage terms than the number of kids who played it 10, 20 or 30 years ago.

And fans say the game is better than ever. Even without "juicing" players are bigger and faster, and international players have deepened the talent pool.

"Baseball has never been stronger than it is today," newspaper columnist and überfan George Will said. "Look at the talent. Just look at Albert Pujols [the 24-year-old phenom with the St. Louis Cardinals]. He's as complete a player as there is. The steroid issue is a serious issue, it's a public health issue, but is only a small part of baseball. The game can always seem to find the lead lining to a silver cloud."

But baseball's problems, some say, may be less about attendance or batting averages than they are about chipping away at the mythic altar on which the game rests, reducing it to just another set of highlights on "Sportscenter."

"The game is never going to disappear," says John Rossi, a professor at La Salle University and author of "The National Game: Baseball and American Culture." "Even now people romanticize it. But the steroid problem has the potential to really sour people. One of the great things about baseball is it's the only sport where statistics matter. You can compare players from different decades and the numbers mean something. This hits right at that."

Near the end of "Field of Dreams," James Earl Jones delivers a speech that goes directly to baseball's appeal for purists: "The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers.... But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, it's part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and that could be again."

In its missteps and particularly in the steroid issue, that part of baseball has been lost to some fans.

"I think any baseball player who sets records like that shouldn't have the records," Ken Ryan says. "The worst part is the players who juiced will stop now, so we'll never know. But watch how the home run numbers fall this year."

And yet, it may be not that baseball is losing its innocence - but rather that it is mirroring the times. Bud Verge, manager of the Orioles store in Washington, says baseball's problems are overstated.

"Everything is more expensive now, not just baseball tickets, and the steroid issue is really the result of the players union having so much control. They run the game," he says.

And yet, he adds, it's not impossible to grasp some players' temptations.

"One night the wife and I stayed up talking about would I do the juice if I was in a contract year," he says. "You know, would I take the steroids, go out and hit 30 or 40 homeruns, and set myself up for life with a fat contract?"

He pauses. "I'd do it."

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