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THE GRAND YOUNG GAME

Once upon a time, in a land that no longer exists, baseball's ultimate status symbol was a World Series ring, followed in short order by a .340 batting average, a slinky babe with a mink stole draped off her shoulder and a Cadillac.

You're not a big deal this year unless you've got lots of scalpers hanging around your ballpark.

Consider the have-nots. At Baltimore's Camden Yards, Orioles management has been charging five or six bucks for admission, then letting the precious few sit wherever they like. In San Francisco, where slugger Matt Williams is on the disabled list and attendance is down a whopping 40 percent from last season, they've been giving away free food to get a few folks out of the saloons on Union Street and into Candlestick Park. In Milwaukee, two-dollar tickets and bargain bratwursts. In Pittsburgh...well, in Pittsburgh the umpires sometimes outnumber the fans. And on TV last week we spotted one guy in the third-base boxes wearing not a Pirates cap but a Steelers helmet. The six other people in his section didn't even notice.

Meanwhile, the streets around Coors Field are crawling with guys who will let you have a $14 seat for only $35.

Is this Wonderland? Or Switzerland? Or some other planet? Everywhere else, major-league baseball, still the sick man of professional sports in the wake of an eight-month strike, continues to wage bitter war with itself. There's still no collective-bargaining agreement between owners and players, and none in sight. There's still no baseball commissioner, so interim buffoon Bud "Lite" Selig busies himself with trifles like dictating how long hitters may remain outside the batter's box come July 28 and for how many seconds a pitcher may toe the rubber before throwing the ball. Possessed of no shame, Philadelphia Phillies All-Stars Lenny Dykstra (batting average: .262) and Darren Daulton don't bother showing up for batting practice in Arlington, Texas.

And a resentful public stays away in droves.
Except here at altitude, where the curve doesn't break and Vinny Castilla could be king. To the shock of the rest of the nation, Colorado Rockies fans regard their ballpark as a Barbra Streisand concert, the Second Coming or the last plane out of Sarajevo. As of last week's All-Star break--a traditional moment for assessment--19 of the Rockies' 36 home games had been sellouts, including the last 15, and during the July 6-9 series against the Expos, scalpers were recycling $4 sun seats in center field's Rockpile for up to fifty bucks, while club-level tickets, cover-priced at $26 a pop (excluding the cocktail service up there), were going for a hundred and up.

Denver's finest arrested five scalpers one night in early July and nine more the next. Just to thicken the drama, one stubborn entrepreneur had stabbed another in the face in a territorial dispute on Blake Street.

Now there's a crime wave they'd love to have in San Diego. Or at Comiskey Park. Or in Montreal, where 300,000 people went one recent night to the local jazz festival while just 12,352 sat in the ballyard.

It doesn't hurt, of course, that the Rox, playing only their third season in the National League, were, by yesterday's reckoning, leading the Western Division by four games. Or that the club features some of the most magnetic personalities--Dante Bichette, Andres Galarraga, Larry Walker--in a game starving for real stars. Or that brand-new Coors Field itself is such a gem--fan-friendly, convenient, beautiful.

Still, not even all those pluses serve to explain why attendance here (45,994 per game) is almost twice the major-league average (24,396) in a year when bad faith reigns, when Seattle star Ken Griffey Jr. sits on the bench with six screws and a metal plate holding his broken wrist together, the Giants' Williams is out with a broken foot, Gary Sheffield is gone for the winter and fan voting for the All-Star teams dropped from 14 million ballots cast in 1994 to 5.8 million this year.

Still not quite convinced that baseball's in the hurt locker? ABC and NBC, which combined in something called The Baseball Network (which rarely broadcasted baseball), have canceled their contract altogether, and ratings on ESPN are terrible. This despite the fact that almost everyone in the game--bullpen catchers, team owners, even umpires--has been trying to repair its damaged image by soft-tossing a baseball into the stands to almost anyone who wants one.

Last year a national Harris Poll found that 49 percent of Americans follow baseball. This year the figure is 33 percent. Meanwhile, Pizza Hut, about as mainstream an outfit as you'll find, last week began running TV spots in which actors playing ballplayers at a mound conference propose treating every terminally angry fan in the park to the $3.99 lunch buffet. Not to worry: Take an entire Yankee Stadium crowd for sausage-and-pepperoni pie and you'd get out of there for a couple hundred bucks.

But scalpers are doing a lively trade in LoDo. Why?
The answer, I think, lies in novelty--but not in the sense some might think. Deep in its soul (insofar that it still has one), baseball is a game built on memories--the child playing catch with his father on the green grass of home, Mazeroski's homer in the 1960 Series, Willie Mays's catch off Vic Wertz in '54, Larsen's perfect game, Marichal's high leg kick. As broadcaster Bob Costas pointed out on a TV talk show last week, the game is a delicate chain of memories, and that chain--the special covenant between the players and the fans--was snapped last year with the scuttling of the baseball season and the cancellation of the World Series for the first time in ninety years. Fans everywhere were angry because their most cherished memories had suddenly been belittled and besmirched by stubborn owners and selfish players.

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