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DEAD BALL ERA

Have you heard? Somebody shot the archduke.
That means war, of course. As they straighten their crimson plumes, mount white horses and gallop off to the front, both sides still believe they will be home in three or four weeks, flushed with glory. But the dark skeptics think otherwise. This is no longer the nineteenth century, they warn. The days of gallant cavalry charges and individual heroism are over. Comes the age of the tank and the machine gun, the age of total war and agonizing stalemate. In order to gain nine feet of blood-soaked ground, entrenched infantries will suffer unspeakable losses. The corpses will pile so high in No Man's Land that gunners of both armies will shovel them aside to regain their sight lines, then slaughter anew.

In the end, opposing armies will take turns giving back their nine feet of ground. Then send up hundreds of thousands of new troops. Then start the killing all over again. And again.

Is this an extreme parallel? Who's to say? For all their blindness in the past twelve months (and the past twenty years), the fools and scoundrels and assorted ignoramuses of baseball might still have salvaged what's left of the game--if their outdated alliances hadn't been so stubborn, their greed so complete or their delusions so deep.

Instead, this is Belgium, 1914. Nothing will ever be the same again. No belief will hold. Even for the faithful, baseball is finished.

Next month, players barely worth the name will put on the pajamas in the sunny training camps, take a little batting practice, then engage in the most foolish charade in the history of American sport. In April the club owners will send these bits of cannon fodder onto the major-league playing fields. There, the poor amateurs and incompetents will drop fly balls, throw to wrong bases and walk the park. Naturally, they will be savaged by those fans still masochistic enough to buy tickets. Meanwhile, the absent multitudes will have turned away from the grimy little spectacle.

This may come as news to Bud Selig (who's a mule) and to Jose Canseco (who's unworthy to wash Willie Mays's socks), but the majority of Americans already regard baseball as a quaint heirloom of the last century. To most people, including teens and Generation Xers raised on the bright flash of MTV, it's a geezer of a game--slow, dull and listless. Where once the perfectly executed 4-6-3 double play stirred the blood, it now provokes impatience. How long must we wait for Bryant Stith to drive the lane and slam the leather home? Beholding the three-and-two count, five fouled-off pitches and (at last!) the single up the middle, instant-gratification freaks cry out: Hurry up, will ya? Let's see Emmitt hit that hole. Break into the open field! Give us, well, how about giving us... hockey?

Make no mistake. Baseball is now mired in the second division of American enthusiasms, with no prospect of moving up. Even without this killing strike, the latest evidence is overwhelming. For instance: Instead of a complete 1994 season or a World Series, baseball fans got Ken Burns's interminable public-television documentary about the game. It may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but more than eighteen hours of tinkling piano music and nostalgic revelry just didn't cut it. Did you get past that endless segment on Merkle's Boner? Do you know anyone who sat through the whole thing? Do you know anyone who listened for 67 straight days while that radio station in Akron played "Take Me Out to the Ballgame"? Didn't think so.

Former fans everywhere are grumbling about hiked-up season-ticket prices and the stupidity of the standoff, but even in the bowels of the culture, you can hear rumblings. Newsweek magazine, the sleepy, fence-sitting voice of Everytown and Middleburg, USA, recently ran a column crowing about the superiority of pro football. Academics, intellectuals and other poor saps, the piece pointed out, have long claimed quiet, contemplative baseball as their favorite sport. But it is football that demands the real brainpower, Newsweek said. The intricacies of the two-deep zone defense, while the wideouts get the backers to bite on the curl, make Willie, Mickey and the Duke and their whole musty lot of supporters look like Forrest Gump on a bad day. So. Not only is baseball dated, it's dumber than you thought.

Meaner, too. Where once Hollywood churned out sunny fictions about the heroic exploits of spotless Babe Ruth and mama's boy Lou Gehrig, it now gives us Tommy Lee Jones as Ty Cobb, the nastiest, most bigoted son of a bitch who ever laced up a pair of spikes. "The youth of America need heroes," Cobb spits through his teeth, then cackles hideously at the irony.

While you wait for him, go ahead. Cue up Field of Dreams on the VCR, if you can still manage it. Is there any baseball fan in America who doesn't now feel like laughing in Kevin Costner's awestruck face when Shoeless Joe Jackson comes floating out of the cornstalks? The game has betrayed us.

Well, then. Who speaks for baseball these days? Despite their incredible gall, the owners don't dare, and the players are all visiting their stockbrokers, getting portfolios together. America's little kids don't dream of the diamond anymore, and most of us former fans--the people who said we would love, honor and obey forever--are so pissed off we can't see straight. Perhaps that leaves, as baseball's sole defender, conservative pundit George Will--an upright Protestant white male who looks like he hasn't had any fun since Tommy Dorsey played Peoria. Apparently, he still loves the hopeless Cubs. And baseball. And the Romanovs.

But not even George is rock-bottom in baseball's world war. The game is now about to be shipped off to the courts and to Capitol Hill--and if that doesn't wring the last ounce of joy from the dying soldier, what will? Ohio's Howard Metzenbaum has retired, but Senators Orrin Hatch, the Republican from Utah, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the Democrat from New York, say they will carry on the effort to finally revoke major-league baseball's antitrust exemption in labor matters. The issue has gone before Congress before, to no avail. But that was before grim lawmakers stuck Yankees caps onto their heads in order to protest salary caps. Before Henry Hyde of Illinois, the new head of the House Judiciary Committee, said he would now change back into Dr. Jekyll: He, too, now opposes the antitrust exemption.

Little matter. The game is a bloody mess. Roger Clemens will some day retake the mound for the Red Sox. Dave Justice will glide back out to right field for the Braves. Andres Galarraga will settle into the batter's box at brand-new Coors Field, that bemused smile on his face once again. But will we give a damn? This most recent stalemate between players and owners suddenly feels as grim and tragic as Verdun--irrational as that seems. Never again will baseball occupy the cherished place in the American imagination that it once held. Never again will we believe. No matter what the loudmouths in Washington proclaim, or how the owners backpedal, or what concessions the players now make, the essential joy of the game is gone.

In this winter of discontent, barely a flicker survives in all the hot-stove league. So be it. Buck up and tune in the smart game. Football.

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