Despite troubles, baseball still matters

The Baltimore Sun

What a week for baseball!

In a picture-postcard setting amid the leafy Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York, a crowd of better than 50,000 will be on hand today to watch Orioles "Iron Man" Cal Ripken Jr. and San Diego Padres superstar Tony Gwynn join the game's immortals as they're inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

At the same time, many sports fans will be focusing on Barry Bonds, the prickly San Francisco Giants slugger dogged by steroid-use rumors, who's on the verge of breaking the most hallowed record in all of sports: the all-time home run title held by the great Hank Aaron.

If there's a message to be gleaned from the confluence of these historic moments, it's this: Baseball still matters.

Maybe basketball, with its flashy, no-look passes, thunderous dunks and hip-hop sensibility, excites more young people these days.

Maybe football, especially the marketing monolith that is the NFL, owns the coveted 18-34 male TV-viewing demographic, so much so that even the April draft - which basically consists of a bunch of big guys in tailored suits at a microphone - gets huge ratings.

But baseball, the game that begins with languid backyard games of catch between fathers and sons and the whack of a ball with a bat on warm summer days, still matters.

"The reason baseball matters - and matters more than ever - is because it's every day," says Jon Miller, the radio voice of the Giants and much-missed former Orioles announcer, who'll be behind the microphone when Bonds delivers his historic blows. "Baseball is a holiday ... from the stresses and strains of everyday life, and it's there whenever you need it."

The timeless rhythm of the game, the unhurried pace suddenly punctuated by a mighty swing and a soaring home run, or a great diving catch in the outfield or a close, dust-raising play at the plate, is what keeps generations of fans tethered to baseball.

So does the game's rich history and the cavalcade of illustrious players it produced who became known all over the world.

In World War II, the greatest insult Japanese troops could deliver to advancing American forces was an epithet involving Babe Ruth. In Iraq, U.S. soldiers have come across signs denigrating Barry Bonds.

All of this underscores the importance of baseball in our lives - even when the game itself falls on hard times.

"These daily games seep into the consciousness of citizens who insist they have stopped paying attention to baseball," writes George Vescey, veteran sports columnist for The New York Times, in his book Baseball: A History of America's Favorite Game. "People say they became disillusioned at their favorite team's defection to another town, or the serial labor shutdowns of the past generation, and they claim they would rather watch pro football or stock cars going around in circles, or whatever.

"They declared they are turned off by high salaries as well as the steroid generation that saw bulked-up sluggers whacking home runs at an unprecedented rate, but the reality is that baseball has survived gambling plots, outlaw leagues, racial segregation, depression, world wars, the early death of a stunning number of its heroes, financial failures of teams, inept ownership, the bad taste of its sponsors and networks, blundering commissioners, inroads by other sports. It endures."

In fact, it thrives - even at a time when competition from other sports, and competition from all forms of entertainment, has never been greater.

According to Major League Baseball, the game is on pace to set an overall regular-season attendance record for the fourth consecutive year. Through last Sunday, 46.3 million fans attended games, a 4.7 percent increase over the 2006 season.

Additionally, the 16 games played Saturday, July 20, drew 639,628 fans, the second-largest single-day attendance figure in history.

Jim Palmer, the Hall of Fame pitcher and veteran Orioles broadcaster, says part of baseball's enduring appeal is that it's still perceived as a sport for Everyman - not necessarily the fastest, tallest and strongest super-athletes.

"You don't have to be 6-9 or weigh 300 pounds to play it," says the three-time Cy Young Award winner. "It's a game for everybody."

As proof, Palmer could point to a succession of lumpy guys (Jim Traber, Sam Horn, David Wells, Kevin Millar, et al) who played for the Orioles, never seemed to skip the post-game fries and were embraced by the fans.

Instead, he brings up Orioles All-Star second baseman Brian Roberts, a player of modest stature (5-feet-9, 180 pounds).

"He's our best player now," says Palmer, who adds that it's Roberts' innate talent, dedication and grueling off-season workouts that have made him the player he is today.

Palmer also thinks lifelong fans look back fondly - and appreciate deeply - what baseball taught them, whether they played in the street in front of their house, in Little League or in the majors.

"You learn so many life lessons," he says. "'You're only as good as your last game, the work ethic. ... Be a good teammate, have fun doing what you're doing.

"If you take that into any other endeavor [in life], you're probably going to turn out all right."

Whatever the reasons for its popularity, baseball continues to impassion its fans.

It's the subject of the best sports movies - Bull Durham, the 1988 film starring Kevin Coster, Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins about minor league life, remains a classic of the genre.

It inspires the best in sports literature (Mark Harris' Bang the Drum Slowly, about the friendship between a pitcher and a doomed catcher) and sports reporting (read Robert W. Creamer's Babe: The Legend Comes to Life, and you'll never have another question about the game's most famous player.)

It even produces the best sports quotations - with or without Yogi Berra in the dugout.

Here in Baltimore, for instance, Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver and Jim Palmer routinely filled the newspapers with quotes so sharp they could draw blood.

When he banished struggling pitcher Mike Cuellar to the bullpen after a number of rocky starts, Weaver told reporters: "I gave him more chances than I gave my first wife."

And when born-again Christian Pat Kelly urged Weaver to stop cussing so much and "walk with the Lord," Weaver responded: "I'd rather see you walk with the bases loaded."

But Palmer, who had a celebrated love-hate relationship with his manager, put Weaver in his place and cracked up Orioles fans when he spouted: "The only thing Earl knows about big-league pitching is that he couldn't hit it."

And maybe all that touches on something, too. Because ultimately, says Jon Miller, baseball fans love the game because it's just fun.

"Baseball is entertainment," says Miller, "but it's also something different, where you may find you have an [emotional] stake in the outcome. You root and shout and curse ... because you care about it.

"[But] when it's over, you go back to your real life and your taxes haven't gone up and your children didn't go off to fight in Baghdad. And you had this ... little vacation from everyday life."

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