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PARTING SHOT WHY WE LOVE BASEBALL-IN SPITE OF ITSELF

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We don’t know, right now, whether Ruben Sierra will join the pantheon of baseball’s greatest players. He could make us forget Ted Williams, Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente. Perhaps he will have his own wing at the Hall of Fame. He may even, one day, grow into his salary. Or we may find him, years hence, listed among lesser lights-Steve Blass, Tony Conigliaro, Shoeless Joe Jackson-who lit up the diamond a while, then faded away.

But one thing is already certain. In the year 2010, by which time, surely, a benevolent god will have brought a pennant to flap over Arlington Stadium, Ruben Sierra will be the answer to the Amalgamated Bank of Tokyo’s Trivia Question of the Day: “Who was the first Ranger player to be paid $5 million dollars in a season? Hint: It wasn’t Nolan Ryan.”

While Ruben The High (Priced) Sierra may never have another .300 season, he’s already eclipsed the royalty of the summer game in at least one way. The Puerto Rican plutocrat will make more money this year than all the players mentioned above-plus a dozen more greats from the Hall-made in their top years. Combined. For that matter, I’ll bet Sierra will haul in more cash this year than Shakespeare, Benjamin Franklin, Einstein, Helen Keller, Malcolm X and the Marx Brothers saw in their best seasons.

Yes, it’s the annual Baseball-is-Dying Rant, that Neanderthal’s howl for a perfect past that never existed. Bo Knows I have railed against rampant commercialism. Made fun of million-dollar egos. Dissed the designated hitler. Dumped on the dot race. Conducted a nationwide search for the one product Nolan Ryan would not endorse. In general, I’ve behaved as if we could turn back the outfield clock (brought to us, no doubt, by Seiko) to the 1957 World Series and watch Mickey Mantle dig in against Warren Spahn.

But while singing hosannas to the Way It Used To Be before free agentry, arbitration and advertising conquered and transformed baseball, I’ve not sworn off the game. No picket lines for me. I’m part of the problem, one of the millions who let them get away with it. Rangers radio man Eric Nadel talks in my sleep. A dozen or more times a season, I join the lemming-rush to Arlington Stadium. What would I endure in order to see Ryan vs. Roger Clemens on a flawless April afternoon? I would… I would sit between a fifteen-year-old girl who spends the entire game bubbling about how cuuuuute Kevin Costner was in Bull Durham, and a lawyer talking to his Mercedes dealer on a cordless phone. Greater love hath no man.

Why? Because if you listen carefully between choruses of “We Will Rock You,” the true pulse of the game beats on, despite the forces of greed that may turn baseball into just another sideshow on the great American midway. Granted, it gets harder to hear that pulse every year amid the dot races and the rock songs and the stomping masses doing The Wave and the voice that orders us to turn to page 17 of our souvenir program, brought to us by Colter’s Barbecue.

Still, there are reasons to love baseball in spite of the moneymen who threaten its soul. At its best, baseball with its perfect order and clarity furnishes an escape from the muddled ambiguity of our real lives. In our world, amiable dumbbells schmooze their way up the ladder: committees shroud individual merit and guilt in a fog of memos; sons and daughters of the rich are bom on third base thinking they hit a triple. None of this happens in baseball, which is as close to a pure meritocracy as we’re likely to get.

For all its troubles, baseball tells the truth. Surely there is a correlation between our national revulsion against phony, deceiving politicians and the steady growth in attendance at major-league baseball games. A politician can fool many of the people much of the time, but in baseball, the gap between image and reality, between word and deed, is never allowed to grow too wide. No public relations wizard or spin doctor can make a .235 hitter look like a .335 hitter. The long season brings a reality check with every game, and when a batter stands in against Doc Gooden or Bret Saberhagen, the size of his Gatorade contract means nothing.

If the skills are real, so is the responsibility. As Roger Angell tells us in The Summer Game, the beautiful-and painful-clarity of baseball means there is no shifting the blame for a disaster, no stealing the credit for another’s heroics. The media loves to talk about those “defining moments” when supposedly our political leaders must stand and prove their mettle. Such moments are news in politics because they are so rare. They happen every night in baseball.

With one out, the batter singles sharply to right field. The runner from first base tears around second and digs for third. One of the game’s most beautiful plays unfolds as the right fielder scoops up the ball and launches the long throw to third. It is the runner’s speed and guts against the fielder’s power and accuracy. One man will be right and the other wrong, and no opinion poll will be needed to tell the difference. The standard is perfection; hence the awe reserved for the perfect game, baseball’s most dramatic feat.

To savor these moments we can tolerate much nonsense and distraction. So we come back, cursing the rising ticket prices that pay the salaries that have made the game a perpetual commercial. Already, instant replays at Rangers games are brought to us by Budweiser; how long until ball four and strike three are brought to us by Minolta? Would you honestly be surprised if a star player demanded that, after every base hit, he be allowed to make a 30-second pitch for his athletic shoe company?

Of course you can love baseball without worrying over its identity problems and without caring one fig about its philosophical merits. For that matter, you can love it without ever knowing what links the names of Tinker, Evans and Chance, or what Vic Wertz had to do with Willie Mays. When the game is right, when the only thing being brought to us is baseball, the obscene prices and the tawdry gimmicks are forgotten, forgiven. Something real and valuable is happening down there between the white lines. If we only watch and give ourselves up to it, we may remember why we came.

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