O's greats a glimpse of what baseball has lost

August 20, 2002|By MICHAEL OLESKER

ON SUNDAY, the Baltimore Orioles inducted Hoyt Wilhelm into their Hall of Fame. Some of us still remember the day Wilhelm no-hit the New York Yankees. It was 1958. The day was overcast. Gus Triandos hit a home run. Billy Gardner, cheek bursting with chewing tobacco, caught the last out.

Some of us remember the details because we were still kids back then. To watch a baseball game is to gain entrance to childhood for a few hours at a time. But the ballplayers are about to kill off a whole generation of the young at heart if they go through with their insane talk of a labor strike Aug. 30.

What the players don't seem to understand is this: We have other things on our minds now. Not only football games, not only kids returning to school, and terrorist nightmare worries and the fate of our diminishing 401(k)s, but a whole different pace of life than we knew when some of us first embraced baseball.

On Sunday, Wilhelm was joined in the Orioles Hall of Fame by pitcher Dennis Martinez and announcer Rex Barney. How far back do they go? The first time I saw Dennis Martinez, he was standing on 33rd Street outside Memorial Stadium. The game had been over for nearly an hour, and there was the rookie Martinez in a line of people. He was waiting to catch an MTA bus to go home.

Can anyone imagine such a thing today? The average major leaguer now makes about $2 million a year. They can buy their own buses. They can buy entire fleets of limousines if they choose.

Today, the ballplayers retire and cross-fertilize their millions for the rest of their lives. Rex Barney, who pitched half a century ago, spent his post-pitching years first tending bar at the old Pimlico Hotel on Park Heights Avenue and then talking baseball on the radio to supplement his public-address announcing at the ballpark.

What we remember affectionately about these three guys isn't just their ability, but their staying power. In the press box Sunday, Mike Flanagan remembered Barney's voice on the P.A. system as a kind of "security blanket" when Flanny was still pitching here. Barney announced for a couple of decades. Martinez was here long enough to win a hundred games. Wilhelm was here during a time when everybody seemed to stick around.

OK, the game was different years ago. The players got played for chumps by owners who had smart lawyers on their side, and the reserve clause bound athletes to teams until the teams decided to dump them. Paybacks, as we've seen since Curt Flood first took organized baseball to court, are hell.

But they've mostly been hell on the fans - and it's baseball that's about to pay a price it probably cannot imagine, even now.

Hoyt Wilhelm's no-hitter was in the summer of 1958. That December, in the dusk at Yankee Stadium, the Baltimore Colts ushered the modern age of pro football into American life. Also, the age of modern sports marketing. In the world of sports, and entertainment, nothing since has ever been the same.

It's not just football, it's the saturation coverage of all entertainment, and the ability to call any of it onto our TV screens - or get rid of it - at an instant twitch of the thumb. We move now to different rhythms. Baseball, for all that we treasure it, relies as much on history, on sentiment, on the collection of arcane statistics and old black-and-white memory footage cluttering our heads, as it does on contemporary action.

Those of us who grew up when the game still dominated the sports pages listened to it on the radio every night because it was better than watching Arthur Godfrey. Our entertainment choices were much narrower. Thus the game was not just our national pastime, but our national narrative. We're sentimental about such things.

But sentiment only goes so far. And the truth is, it's a long time now since kids embraced baseball the way they once did. They have other, faster-paced diversions. Only thoroughbred horse racing has failed more noticeably to latch on to coming generations of fans as baseball has.

The ballplayers justify their salaries now by claiming they aren't just athletes - they're entertainers. But, like any entertainment, we can turn away and choose something else to amuse us. In the old days, they weren't just athletes but part of the community by reason of longevity. When they got the freedom to move, they moved so quickly we barely had time to learn their names.

Thus, passions become mere diversions. Thus, loyalties fade. If the ballplayers walk, they take the happy heart of the child out of their game. We will find other pleasures, and some of us will not look back.

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