Joy in Mudville


April 06, 1992|By GABE SINCLAIR

For ten years now, I've been a machinist here at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, and most days you can find me here, making this or that gadget to facilitate some pretty amazing research into the heart of biological function. Today, though, we're all supposed to stay home because of Opening Day at the new ballyard right around the corner.

Now, most people will read just this much and say, ''Oh, jeez, here we go again. Another dismal lament about misplaced priorities, and he's probably going to weep openly about the sad state of American science.''

Nothing could be further from the truth. It just so happens that I like baseball and the new park, and the starting rotation looks real good, and I enjoy my job so much I don't even mind the special 3 percent tax I have to pay in the form of furlough days. Any idiot can see that the state really does need my money, so I really can't complain.

And it's not everyone who gets to work with researchers like Drs. Blaustein, Gregerson and Hamlyn, to name a few, who are famous in their fields and right there on the edge of new comprehensions. And since, at 42, I've lost something off my fastball, this is the best job I could hope for.

The only problem is that not many people have ever heard of Drs. Blaustein, Gregerson, and Hamlyn. That's especially true of people in Annapolis. Probably the only name that might ring a bell is that of Dr. John Hamlyn. He's the one who made the papers because, after years of sifting through barrels of blood, he discovered a minute chemical factor in the regulation of blood pressure. It turns out that this substance is ouabain which is one of the toxins produced by frogs in South America, and the press thinks that's the sort of ''gee-whiz'' stuff folks will pay to read about. And it is. Along with a lot of other things that go on here.

The part of the story that's gone unreported, though, is exactly what Dr. Hamlyn has to do in order to pursue this business. The whole process of grant application, approval and funding remains as mysterious as the research itself, and I'm not sure why. The news just isn't getting out, so nobody realizes that there are hundreds of highly driven men and women here engaged in labors that would make Hercules look like a piker. And they do this without so much as a ''pretty please'' or ''thank you.''

In fact, only about one out of every six grant applications gets funded nowadays, which is a crying shame. What that means is that nobody makes it in this business unless they put in about 26 hours a day, and if you're not a type triple-A personality with overdrive, you can forget it. Throw in teaching and administrative responsibilities, and it's a far cry from anything Aristotle had in mind.

Especially when you consider that Dr. Hamlyn is one of the 85 percent denied funding this time around.

But that's not the point.

The money spent on the stadium and player salaries is not going to fall off the face of the earth. Every red cent will re-enter the world economy in the form of Mercedeses or palatial houses in the Worthington Valley or in peanut sales. What baseball and the new stadium prove is that we can damned well afford anything we put our minds to. (Multiply that a million fold, and what you have is something like a defense budget producing nothing of human value.) We can channel money wherever we please, no matter how stupid it is, and it all comes back with interest. We get more than just the labor of the guy at shortstop, though if it's Cal, that alone is probably worth it.

Of the 46,000 or so who are there for the opening pitch, a certain percentage will some day have a stroke without knowing why. Maybe they'll think about poison darts and what might have been, but more likely not. And, sure, you can say that millions of people die without knowing why, so what's the big deal?

Personally, though, I'm of the opinion that we could easily afford to find out and that maybe Maryland ought to think about what it's going to do without the defense industry. Maybe the money ought to go where the mouth is, and that would be a good start.

I'm also pretty sure that Dr. Hamlyn and the others will sneak into work today, maybe under cover of night, because they need every minute they can get their hands on. Come hell or high water. Paid or not. So, I suppose I ought to keep the shop open, too. I'll go to work today and take along a radio to catch the game. I can't wait to see the traffic. I also hope that the president of the university continues his shameless conciliation, and tries to lock us out.

Mr. Sinclair writes from Baltimore.

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