Baseball, like America's Soul, Must Rebound from Its Slump

Article excerpt

It's opening day in a Class A minor league: chilly but clear weather, fresh sod, raked infield dirt, a pristine canvas. The pitcher of the Hagerstown (Md.) Suns fires a fastball to the leadoff man for the visiting Polecats of Albany, Ga. A strike. Ah, baseball, thy glory shines undimmed!

Or does it?

Now that an interval has passed since the annual preseason ritual of sports punditry, in which scribblers of various calibers bemoan or celebrate the game, a few comments from the bleachers:

The game constantly changes, the way everything in this country dizzyingly and dazzlingly modifies itself. But up to now, the soul of baseball has endured. You go to the ballpark, grab some peanuts and Cracker Jacks, and enjoy essentially the same spectacle that your grandfather and great-grandfather revered.

This is still the case -- though the game's luster is tarnishing. The sports pages are dominated with tales of players cavorting off the field, just as brattish but often more vicious than in the past, and we read -- interminably, it sometimes seems -- of antic salary negotiations. The designated hitter remains the American League's contribution to the general distortion of the modem world, and indoor stadiums and artificial turf scar the game.

There are still 90 feet between bases, to be sure, and Congress has not yet legislated a fourth strike for players in "protected status" or mandated women on the diamond in numbers equal to their percentage of the population.

But the small, neat universe of baseball is becoming less engaging. There may come a point, perhaps not all that distant, at which baseball will lose the character that sustains it.

One of the game's most solid observers, columnist Tom Boswell of the Washington Post, was especially edgy in a preseason analysis. Indeed, his column had a tone you might expect in an obituary.

Some of his indicators of the game's wan vital signs included: city kids seldom play baseball; so many players change teams so fast that nobody knows who plays for whom anymore; baseball expands by two teams at the very moment it should not dilute talent; television ratings are evaporating.

That's not all: The owners are on the verge of expanding to eight-team playoffs with wild cards (what Boswell calls "the worst of all possible quick-fix ideas") and are contemplating an expansion to 30 teams -- six divisions of five teams each.

There's also the little item of the owners' firing a commissioner for flexing his nominal muscle; now they're foundering in enticing a replacement who fits their specifications: a cross between a spaniel and a stump. …