The obituaries for baseball are absurdly premature

The Argument

Books on the national pastime abound, as the sport continues to prosper

March 30, 2003|By PAUL DUKE | PAUL DUKE,Special to the Sun

The boys of spring have finished their warm-up training camp rituals and Americans resume their oldest sporting romance when the 2003 baseball season begins. Happy days are here again for all of us loyal aficionados.

It has become rather fashionable in recent years to deride the country's longtime love affair with baseball as a fading phenomenon. It is argued that football and basketball as well as that rookie import, soccer, are wresting away the devotion of thousands of fans and that the national pastime no longer merits claim to that title.

As the critics see it, baseball is a tired old sport that's too slow and too dull. The season goes on too long, and there is too little competition in the major leagues. The players are not as good as they used to be, are not as fan friendly and are pampered with wildly extravagant salaries. At the upper-deck level, the owners and the players union have been woefully lax in confronting the dangers of drugs and dietary supplements as illustrated by the recent death of the young Baltimore pitcher, Steve Bechler. So, it is contended, baseball's glory days are gone.

Admittedly, baseball has had some rough innings in recent years, primarily in the labor-management area with two strikes and the threat of others. But the notion that it no longer holds popular sway and is in serious decline is fanciful. To the contrary, there are solid reasons for believing that it has not alienated the affections of the multitudes and, in fact, continues to thrive.

No other sport has so many rich traditions, celebrates so many heroes or demands such a variety of skills. The home run still towers as the most explosive event in all the vast panoply of sports and a recent USA Today poll proclaimed a player's ability to hit the ball as the toughest achievement. For all the emphasis on the beloved bygone days and the hitting heroics of Babe Ruth, Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio, the modern era has hardly lacked for superstars with the likes of Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Cal Ripken.

The steady flow of recruits from Latin America and Asia has given the game a more international coloration. Little Leagues exist in 80 nations. College ball is booming with a record number of schools fielding teams, many playing 60 or more games. Minor league clubs are proliferating in smaller cities and towns.

Movies, television documentaries and plays (including Broadway's latest home run smash, Take Me Out) are reconfirming how deeply baseball is embedded in the country's culture. The Yankees, Cubs, Cardinals --- and yes, count the Orioles, too -- are national brands as recognizable as Coca-Cola and McDonal's. In short, the game is a timeless part of our grain, as Robert Frost once acknowledged when he said: "I am never more at home in America than at a baseball game,"

The mounds of books eloquently emphasize the point. They not only cover lots of bases, but are being turned out in great numbers by a wide-ranging lineup that includes such heavy-hitting authors as David Halberstam, Roger Kahn, George Will and Richard Ben Cramer. Plainly, when it comes to the literary pursuits, no other sport is in the same league.

Managers, coaches, umpires, players, historians and scientists are all taking to the field in a dazzlingly prolific nostalgia binge. The prominent Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, who died before publication of Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville (Norton, 320 pages, $24.95), rhapsodizes about the passion of intellectuals and boasts about his family's "unbroken string of four generations of baseball rooting." From the ousted baseball commissioner Fay Vincent comes a hearty valentine in The Last Commissioner (Simon & Schuster, 322 pages, $26). He sees the business side as "awful and ugly" but has lost none of his faith in the game's magic. Moreover, if Vincent had to choose "a single ballpark in which to watch baseball for the rest of my life" it would be Camden Yards.

There are autobiographies and biographies galore. Jane Leavy's best-selling Sandy Koufax (HarperCollins, 304 pages, $23.95) offers an absorbing, albeit over-dramatized profile of the 1960s Los Angeles pitching star. Mickey Mantle's tragic life and times have been well reported in half a dozen books, but the newest by Tony Castro Mickey Mantle: America's Prodigal Son (Brasseys, 344 pages, $26.95) is particularly poignant. Some players are being refreshingly frank, too much so in the case of pitcher David Wells who was recently fined $100,000 by Yankee management for the stunning admission in Perfect I'm Not (William Morrow, 432 pages, $25.95) that he was "half drunk" while hurling a perfect game in 1998.

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