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America’s Game

Welcome back, baseball, an art form that will triumph over steroids.

By 3.30.04

TAMPA -- T.S. Eliot said April is the cruelest month. But he was a gloomy guy, so not trustworthy on all things. He even liked being a banker.

Chaucer came closer when he said, "Whan that April with his baseball soote."

OK, the exact line is, "Whan that April with his showres soote" -- April with its showers sweet. Folks weren't too good at spelling back then. But it was before No Child Left Behind, so we have to make allowances.

I live in Tampa -- where it's sunny and lush most of the year -- so April doesn't bring nature's pyrotechnics the way it does elsewhere. (Heck, the azaleas bloomed here in early February.) But I learned to appreciate April when I lived in Northern Virginia in the early eighties while working on Capitol Hill, helping to make the world safe for then Congressman Andy Ireland. If you can't be impressed by spring in Northern Virginia -- and a fair fraction of the rest of the lower 48 -- you're a hard case.

But, Florida or elsewhere, spring brings more than a feast for the eyes. It brings a renewal of that most American of rituals. The annual pageant that gladdens our hearts while it reaffirms our values. I speak (you might guess) of that elegant, luxuriously-paced work of art -- baseball.

We may be facing seven more months of a presidential campaign between two inarticulate candidates and their dopey minions, who will make such an oily show of loving us all to death that we'll have to have the carpets cleaned after the election. And we face this with the backdrop of possible attacks by deranged Islamo-fascists.

But by golly we now have more satisfying metaphysical questions to ponder, to wit: With Lucy Van Pelt and Grady Little out of the picture, who will snatch the football away this year just as the Red Sox start to kick it? Can George Steinbrenner reach new depths of boorishness? (And -- in his unflagging pursuit of trophy players -- can he keep his payroll below W's budget deficit?) Can Sweet Lou Piniella light a fire under yet another underperforming team (this time the Tampa Bay Devil Rays)? Does Roger the Rocket have a little more red glare left in his right arm? Are the Fish for real?

These theorems, and others, are a delight to ponder and discuss. They expand the soul. They lighten the day. They can even take our minds off Bush and Kerry and the Real World for a bit, and are therefore socially useful.

I KNOW, I KNOW, baseball has its problems. Players are wildly overpaid and ticket prices are too high. The season is too long, beginning and ending in football weather. There are salary disputes and franchise maneuverings (usually featuring working stiff taxpayers being held up for new stadiums for the benefit of millionaire owners and millionaire players).

But here's the one to watch this year. Increasingly, players who actually know the difference between the hit and run and the straight steal are being replaced by chemically enhanced weight-room geeks with just one big eye in the middle of their foreheads whose only function is to try to hit the ball into the next zip code. (Geez, it wasn't that long ago that baseball players looked like normal human beings and Greg Luzinski was the only guy in the bigs who could rotate the tires on the team bus without using a jack.) MLB would like very much to ignore this issue, but Congress and baseball's fans don't seem to be in the mood to let them. They probably can't be bought off with a non-buffed Jason Giambi and a steroid policy written by Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.

And who the hell said I wanted to hear "YMCA" at 120 decibels every time I go to a ball game? What happened to the nice lady who used to play the organ between innings?

Indeed, the church has been defiled. But baseball will survive in spite of its leadership. It will survive .230 hitters with agents, stockbrokers, hair dryers, and more jewelry than the Gabor sisters. It will survive a grasping, self-destructive union and ham-handed marketers. ("Hey, why don't we pitch the game at people who love loud rock music and have the IQ of turnips?") It will survive troglodyte owners like Steinbrenner, Peter Angelos, and Charlie Finley. (Remember Charlie? When he owned the Oakland A's he tried to get MLB to switch to orange baseballs. Dick Green, his second baseman at the time, thought it was a dopey idea because, he admitted, "I haven't figured out how to hit the white one yet.") It will survive because of its beauty, its grace, and its power to move us.

One of the toughest things I've had to come to terms with over the years is that some good-hearted, otherwise sane, patriotic Americans don't like baseball. Some even say it's "just a game." It passeth all understanding. For bigger mysteries than this you have to go to the Bible.

Some of these people are very nice and I still like them. But secretly, I feel a little sorry for them. It seems to me that if baseball is just a game, ballet is just walking around on your toes, Itzhak Perlman is just your average fiddle player, and the '57 Chevy was just a car.

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About the Author

Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.