We're in a baseball league of our own

September 21, 1994|By Mark Harris

TEMPE, ARIZ. — Tempe, Ariz -- I WISH people could begin to understand that big-league baseball is not baseball.

It is only an aspect of baseball. When big-league baseball stops, baseball continues.

The people who conduct the business of baseball -- Major League Baseball -- claim, for legal reasons of their own, that their business is not a business but a game. In unintended ways they are right.

Peer ahead.

Imagine that the major-league baseball strike has continued into the far future. Then someone in the overgrown shadows of an abandoned stadium inhales out of the ether-of-peanuts an old idea that feels new.

He assembles a team of fine players and goes about challenging teams of fine players from other cities. The cities form themselves into a kind of competitive circle -- they call it a league -- playing a certain number of games in the summer, at the end of which they declare a winner.

Later a second assembly of cities forms a league that a clever sportswriter calls "the junior circuit."

Someone among the innovators with a nose for history says: "You know, I have the feeling this has been done before. What was it that went wrong and made it all fall down?"

The problem was that the baseball world made the error of thinking "baseball" meant only big-league baseball, played by the best players for the most money. People who paid to watch the players converted admiration for the players' skill to awe of their wealth.

When fans thought of players, they thought of salaries. Fascinated and envious, they fantasized the sensual, luxurious lives the players lived, hating them for their good luck.

The players and their "owners" -- as they had been called in an innocent age -- had encouraged fans to think of them in this way. Because gossip about salaries drew fans to the ballpark, the salaries were required to accelerate. Reggie Jackson once demanded a contract that would surpass his nearest salary rival's by $1.

People went to baseball games to see the marvel of multimillion-dollar boys doing what they had done only yesterday on the playground down the street.

When Major League Baseball died, and the fans were deprived of the conversational value of seven-figure salaries, they returned their attention to performance. They learned once again to watch the game directly.

Crowds that had been scornful of minor-league baseball, college baseball, town baseball, school baseball and sandlot baseball learned to treasure all over again the power, speed, agility, dexterity, endurance and reflexes of players at all levels of skill.

Although Major League Baseball was dead, people continued to play baseball. Since people seemed to love to hit baseballs with bats, manufacturers continued to supply balls and bats. America had not come to the end of baseball, only to the end of the big-league game.

Baseball is a game. Millions of girls and boys and their mothers and fathers play it in one form or another -- often in that version called softball, though the ball is by no means soft and you can break your finger playing it.

I played it as recently as Sunday on a diamond near home in Arizona, on the same day my son Henry played hardball for the over-30 team he manages in Los Angeles.

People continue to play baseball. People enjoy the fine feeling of hitting a ball well, of fielding a grounder cleanly, of gathering in a fly ball after an educated run for it, of tagging up at third and sprinting home to the cheers of teammates, of hashing the whole thing over afterward, post-mortems into the night, exhilarated by that certain play one of them performed by sheer miracle, cast down by that error everyone was almost too polite to mention.

For many people, nothing they do in their lives is more satisfying than playing baseball well.

We learn that there's more to baseball than Major League Baseball, as we have learned that Broadway is not the only theater, Hollywood not the only cinema, nor Manhattan the only book publisher.

Mark Harris is author of "Diamond," a collection of his baseball writings. He wrote this for the New York Times.

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