C-crack! Baseball villains and superheroes return

Welcome to baseball 2005, where vivid characters play stereotypical roles in a dramatic, yet simple plot.

Last week, Randy Johnson, a towering left-handed pitcher who is the New York Yankee's latest prize acquisition, appeared incredulous when asked his thoughts on his new team's archrivalry with the Boston Red Sox.

"Archrivals?" he said. "It's like we're reading a comic book or something."

To which we can only say: Exactly!

Five months after the Red Sox defeated the Yankees in an astounding league championship, and went on to win the World Series for the first time since 1918, the narrative that is major league baseball has become so melodramatic that it may increasingly resemble the genre of fiction.

The intensity of the Sox-Yankee soap opera - the most famous sports rivalry in America - is only part of it. The investigation into allegations of steroid use among players, heartbreakingly, has called into question the ethics of some heroes of the game. Meanwhile, a team has returned to Washington, D.C., a move that combines the sweetness of a homecoming with the possibility of some comic basepath ineptitude.

Welcome to baseball, 2005. It's not Shakespeare. But it's still likely to be an absorbing story. "On opening day, life is a little bit warmer," says Dale Petroskey, president of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. "Everything smells a little bit sweeter. The sun is a bit brighter."

To compare baseball to comic books or adventure movies is not to call into question the reality of its competition. Not since the Black Sox scandal of 1919, when eight Chicago White Sox players were accused of throwing the World Series in return for money from gamblers, has such staging in games been proven.

But baseball has long seemed the most narrative-rich of professional American sports. It has, for one thing, a tremendous backstory - a history that stretches back to the Cincinnati Red Stockings of 1869. The great inventor Thomas Edison never made a film of football players, as he did of a baseball game near the turn of the 20th century. Presidents don't attempt the first free throw on opening day of the NBA.

Furthermore, the structure of the game lends itself to storytelling. Its slow pace leaves time for radio and television announcers to fill with digressions. With 162 games in the regular season, only the most fanatical of followers can experience a team's every pitch. Of necessity they experience much of the Tigers,' or Astros,' or Diamondbacks' progress through the words of sports reporters.

And the dawning of the free-agent era means those stories have continued year-round. The fate of this winter's prize catch, center fielder Carlos Beltran, filled column inches for months, as if he were a 1930s-era debutante choosing among wealthy suitors.

The result is a narrative in which vivid characters play somewhat stereotypical roles (Aging Veteran, Hopeful Rookie, Clean-living Slugger, Steely Closer, etc.) in a dramatic, yet simple and repetitious plot. Kind of like comic books.

"Nowadays the players even look pumped up, kind of like superheroes," says Jules Tygiel, a professor of history at San Francisco State University, who has written extensively about baseball and society.

Perhaps no aspect of this season will appear more like a "Star Wars" remake than the clashes between darkness and light known as Yankee-Red Sox games. Theirs is a longtime regional rivalry inflamed by competition and taken to a new level by last year's improbable Red Sox comeback to become world champs.

Every soap opera needs a dark sub-plot, and for baseball the steroid scandal is continuing in that role. The whispers became considerably more detailed over the off-season, with the result that some players alleged to have used performance-enhancing substances, from Jason Giambi of the Yankees to the retired Cardinal first baseman Mark McGuire, have suffered damage to their public images. Advanced training techniques have produced more superhero physiques but some players are beginning this season as notably diminished versions of their former selves.

On a brighter note, the return of baseball to Washington has cheered the lives of thousands of congressional aides and K Street lawyers - who, truth be told, are themselves generally the kind of people who were picked last for recess kickball.

Washington is a far richer city than it was when the Senators played at RFK Stadium. Plus, its new team already features at least one genuine superstar - Frank Robinson, the intense Hall of Fame outfielder who manages the team.

"Frank Robinson stands for a lot of the right things in baseball," predicts Hall of Fame official Dale Petroskey. "You're going to see the city really adopt this team."

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