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Past Time

Ethan Wenberg

George Washington played a couple of seasons with the Chicago White Sox. He hit a respectable .268, with nine homers, 24 doubles and 52 runs batted in. The braided waistcoat and buckle shoes must have slowed him down, though. In his 128-game big-league career, George stole just one base.

None of this will surprise the ecstatic citizens of Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Last week, a baseball historian named John Thorn called a press conference in that sleepy city of 40,000 in the Berkshires to unveil a recently discovered document that appears to confirm the existence of baseball in Pittsfield in the year 1791 -- more than half a century before the game's widely accepted date of birth.

Little matter that the George Washington who once graced the White Sox outfield was a native of Linden, Texas, or that he played in 1936 and 1937. In western Massachusetts, baseball fans can take delight as they imagine the Father of Our Country striking out the side in the top of the ninth to win a big one against, say, the Worcester Minutemen. They've got to be grinning that their fair city has now upstaged both Cooperstown, New York (where Abner Doubleday definitely did not invent baseball in 1839), and Hoboken, New Jersey -- where, historians long believed, Alexander Cartwright originated something like the game as we know it in 1846.

Are more revisions in the offing? Possibly. Maybe we'll hear someday that the Mohawks and the Pilgrims played Sunday doubleheaders in Woonsocket. But for the moment, Pittsfield's at the top of the historical standings, thanks to an eight-by-ten sheet of tan paper on which is written a municipal bylaw, dated 1791, that expresses concern over broken glass in the city's new meeting house. "No Person or Inhabitant of said Town," the order reads, "shall be permitted to play at any Game called Wicket, Cricket, Baseball, Batball, Football, Cat, Fives or any other Game or Games with Balls, within the Distance of Eighty Yards from said Meeting House."

If some eighteenth-century slugger did go yard and bust a public window, the fine was to be five shillings. That may be chump change to Alex Rodriguez, but for the average guy tanning leather or making tankards for a living, it was probably big money. It's a good bet the Pittsfielders moved across town before resuming the joys of their summer game.

Why talk about this? For one thing, most baseball fans are hopeless nostalgiaphiles. They can tell you Enos "Country" Slaughter's batting average in 1953 and where Willie Mays ate lunch in his playing days and who pitched game four of the 1926 Series. Anyone fool enough to ask a seamhead for his views on the designated hitter or Bob Feller's social habits had better be ready for a filibuster. But that's not the only reason we invoke baseball's past at the moment. The better one is that the game seems once more on the brink of crisis. Signs and signals are popping up everywhere. The percentage of African-American players in the big leagues is dropping as the most gifted young black athletes find themselves ever more attracted to football and basketball. Many old-guard fans, still smarting from the insult of the 1994 players' strike, imagine that every plug of Red Man in the big leagues is now laced with bogus muscle drugs. Commissioner Bud Selig recently endorsed a thoughtless plan to desecrate baseball's very bases with advertisements for the new Spider-Man movie, and backed off only when the chorus of boos grew loud. The game's most dominant player, Barry Bonds, who's in hot pursuit of Babe Ruth's home-run mark, is a sullen egotist who alienates his own Giants teammates and complains when opposing pitchers intentionally walk him.

The Milwaukee Brewers are $133 million in debt. George Steinbrenner's overpaid Yankees keep winning pennants. And the great Ted Williams's severed head is in a freezer chest, thanks to the biological fantasies of his late, lunatic son. Are there any other soul-killing images we must endure beyond the grotesquery of $15 million-per-year player salaries and second basemen so pumped up on steroids that they look like beer trucks?

Well, how about the recent revelation by Chicago Cubs outfielder Moises Alou that he urinates on his hands to toughen them up for a long season at the plate? He's not the only one. Yankee catcher Jorge Posada also pees on his mitts -- but only in spring training, he claims. Whatever. The notion of these guys picking over the raw-vegetable tray at the clubhouse buffet must give their teammates pause. By the way, whaddya think of Pete Rose and that new "memoir" of his? Guy makes a couple of lousy calls to his bookie from the Cincinnati manager's office and the whole world wants to bust him. George Washington -- the one in the powdered wig -- could not tell a lie. Pete Rose can't tell the truth.

Meanwhile, here in Denver, fans may start wondering if the Colorado Rockies could beat the 1791 Pittsfields. The season's barely six weeks old, and already the Rox are looking up at the Dodgers and Padres. Preston Wilson's on the disabled list, the perennially injured Larry Walker hasn't played yet, and the 2002 rookie of the year, Jason Jennings, wants out -- just like every other Rockies pitcher who hasn't completely lost his mind. Scott Elarton is gone, and multi-millionaire Rockie Denny Neagle can't lift his arm over his head. As for that four-man rotation thing manager Clint Hurdle was fooling around with, even Pittsfield had five starters -- although one of them probably worked nights as a candlemaker.

If Rockies ownership and management once had the idea that winning doesn't matter -- that it was enough just to put nine guys out there and turn on the beer taps behind the bleachers -- falling attendance at Coors Field tells them otherwise. In 1993, when the team was brand-new and playing at old Mile High Stadium, 4,483,350 fans packed the place to greet National League play -- 55,350 per game. In 1995, when Coors Field opened (and the Rockies made their only trip to the playoffs), nearly 4,000,000 showed up. The numbers have been dropping off ever since: Attendance fell below 3,000,000 for the first time in 2002, and last year's fourth-place club drew only 2,334,085 -- 28,815 per game. This spring, the first below-20,000 crowd was announced at a cold, rainy night game.

At the same time, the Rockies' 1993 expansion mates, the Florida Marlins, have won the World Series twice, and the Arizona Diamondbacks, who entered the National League five years after Colorado, did it in 2001. The Mile High franchise that once looked like one of the best in baseball is now in serious trouble. The Montreal Expos are probably going to Washington, D.C.; the Rockies are going nowhere.

Still, baseball fans take their pleasures wherever they can find them. Barry Bonds may be an ill-tempered jerk, but his chase after the Bambino and, beyond that, his run at Henry Aaron, is a spectacle we won't soon forget. No sooner did Roger Clemens, the ageless one, come out of a two-hour retirement and join his hometown Houston Astros than he started the season 7-0 and surpassed Steve Carlton to take second place on the all-time strikeout list. Okay, so maybe he beaned Mike Piazza that time and later threw a sharp sliver of bat at the big catcher's legs, but the Rocket is more exciting on the mound than ever. As for baseball's Battle of the Plutocrats -- the $186 million-per-season payroll New York Yankees versus the $160 million Boston Red Sox -- many envious purists are hoping against hope that both clubs fall on their butts. Instead, we're likely to see a Yanks-Bosox thriller right down to the wire in the American League East. Otherwise, the Cubs' brilliant young pitchers might finally put an end to almost a century of Cubbie frustration -- despite Moises Alou's grooming habits. And in Los Angeles, the Dodgers threaten a long-overdue return to greatness. Let's hope they keep Spider-Man out of the clubhouse, too.

So. Despite its woes and follies and cranky anachronisms, baseball has a power to move us that no other sport can produce. As the good people of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, can tell you, it has always been thus. In that light, witness another testament to the game's old appeal that has to be in the same ballpark, chronologically, as the just-discovered Pittsfield document. In a letter to a friend, an anonymous veteran of the Revolutionary War describes now-President Washington's enthusiasm for rounders, or wicket, or some other predecessor of our national pastime this way: "I have often seen it. He (Washington) sometimes throws and catches a ball for hours with his aide-de-camp."

That's great, but let's not ask how they toughened up their hands.


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