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RBI, R.I.P.

Once upon a time there was a game called baseball. This game was played, at the highest professional level, by young men of normal height, weight and ambition, in large American cities situated next to significant bodies of water. The object of the game was to hit a white ball with a wooden stick to a spot where an opponent couldn't catch it. Generally speaking, if a few men did this in succession, their team would score what was called a run. If a team scored three or four runs in the course of the afternoon--they were precious things, runs--that team likely won the game.

Baseball was a sunlit game of long pauses and simmering tensions now and then interrupted by sudden, dynamic action. For the spectator, its beauty (some would say its poetry) lay in the invitation it always offered to contemplate blue sky and sweet breeze, the shimmering green expanse of the playing field itself and, when the rare moment finally arrived, the miracle of the winning run.

I don't care if I never get back, spectators sang to each other. The ballpark, dappled in sun and shade, was a refuge from the rigors of school, the schedules of business and the demands of household. A pastime, they called it. The National Pastime.

Alas, baseball is no more.
The game that on the verge of the 21st century is still called baseball has the same relationship to the real thing that a zircon has to a diamond--or a vain declaration of love to love itself. This quiet, intensely contemplative game, which for so long was a reminder of our rural origins, has mutated into something loud, coarse and obvious. Once it was a product of the fans' imaginations and of the players' subtle skills. Now it is the product of high-test muscle supplements, the greed of TV moguls and relentless marketing studies--all of which tell the powers that be that new, action-crazed baseball fans raised on video games want scoring, and lots of it. Caught that athletic shoe spot on the boob tube in which star Atlanta Braves pitchers Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine try to reinvent themselves as home-run hitters and so win the attention of the pretty girls at the park? Just about nails the current baseball zeitgeist.

It also brings to mind the fact that every summer, the movie companies churn out blockbusters, absurdly expensive crash-bang extravaganzas that seek only to out-detonate the blockbusters of the previous year. Well, "baseball," as it is played in 1999, has become another summer blockbuster.

Nowhere is this more evident than at Coors Field--where thin air, Schwarzeneggerized batters, bad pitching and baseballs stuffed with Flubber have conspired to produce scores only a basketball team could love. That 24-12 atrocity the Colorado Rockies and Cincinnati Reds committed last Wednesday afternoon irked fans here mostly because the Rockies lost the game. But that's not really the point, is it? A 24-12 score cheapens the sport and distorts the game no matter who wins. So do all those 15-12, 17-14 and 12-11 homer-fests for which the local ballpark has become infamous.

As irony would have it, Coors Field is, physically, one of the most beautiful stadiums in the big leagues--a neo-classic lacework of dark-green steel that suggests the coolness of aspen leaf and mountain pine. The park has helped revitalize an entire downtown. It affords spectacular aspects of the city skyline and snow-capped Mount Evans, and its several architectural peculiarities--here a jut of outfield wall, there a fetching asymmetry--suggest the vanished (or soon to vanish) cathedrals of the game: Fenway Park, Ebbets Field, Polo Grounds. Here a thirsty spectator never walks far for a cold beer. A student of the Lost Arts--relief pitching, say--can, with very little effort, get a full-frontal view of the bullpen proceedings. Even when you pause to tap a kidney in one of the convenient restrooms, you remain connected to the action: Piped-in radio broadcasters boom their commentary off the porcelain.

Coors Field is the perfect place for fifteen-year-olds to play baseball--and for us to watch them. But the park's incurable childhood ailments, most of them stemming from the dynamics of air flow, render it ridiculous when grown men step into the batter's box. Just as howitzer racquets and ultra-fast playing surfaces have ruined men's tennis, and the dimensions of the professional basketball court have been dwarfed by seven-foot slam-dunkers, big-league baseball in Denver has degenerated into a freak show.

To be fair, things aren't much better in the sea-level cities. The record-smashing Mark McGwire/Sammy Sosa home-run race that so captured the imagination of baseball fans new and old was fun to watch, but it also served to illuminate how far out of whack the once-delicate balance between hitting and pitching has gotten. This year, the combined earned run average for all pitchers in the major leagues had swollen to an all-time high of 4.85 by the middle of last week. If every team in baseball is basically giving up five runs a game (skewing by really awful teams like the Rockies is here acknowledged), what comes next? Enforcement of the ten-run rule? Seven-inning games that take six hours to complete? Ken Griffey Jr. and Big Mac slugging it out to see who's first to a hundred dingers?

Certainly, the crisply played, beautifully pitched game that used to sneak into the box scores a couple of times a week is fast becoming an endangered species. Homers now sprout like kudzu, fan scorecards look more and more like the flanks of a dalmation, and unremarkable players like the Dodgers' Raul Mondesi and Arizona's Matt Williams find themselves hitting long balls out of the park in Ruthian profusion.

Ever heard of Sean Casey? He's the Cincinnati first baseman who, when the 36-run carnage was finally over at Coors Field last week, had amassed four hits (including two home runs), three walks and six runs batted in. This non-entity now ranks second in the National League batting race--behind Coors Field regular Larry Walker. As for the Reds' Jeffrey Hammonds, he came into the game hitting .132 and homerless and left it hitting .205, with three home runs.

Significantly, young Casey's first homer, struck in the first inning, was the 1,000th round-tripper in Coors Field's four-plus seasons of existence. Push the pocket calculator a couple of times and you learn that that averages out to almost three home runs (2.9567, to be exact) for every game ever played in LoDo. No wonder that in their brief history, the Rockies have also lost at home 26-7 to the Cubs and 21-9 to the Expos. Even the batboys are going deep to the cheaps.

No matter how many ace starters Colorado adds to its staff, no matter how many fragile psyches it trashes en route to mediocrity in the standings, one glaring fact remains. In an era when baseball is no longer baseball and Coors Field is the epicenter of non-baseball, the local club cannot win games unless it has seven or eight sluggers in the lineup and most of the games end up with football scores like the Cincy debacle. Forget pitching. Might as well sign up a couple of twelve-year-olds to screw around with that job and load the batting order with Mark McGwires to do the rest.

Truth is, Denver has major-league fans and bush-league air. Given the present circumstances and the insoluble atmospheric conditions, the Rockies are never, ever going to the World Series. So we'd better get used to it. The most incredible event in Coors Field history--the no-hitter the Dodgers' Hideo Nomo threw against the Rox on September 17, 1996--recedes quickly into the mists of memory. The odds of seeing another no-no at Coors are about what the Brits faced at Dunkirk.

So. What to do? Not just for the shell-shocked Rox, but for the game at large?

For a start, raise the mound half a foot so that pitchers everywhere can stand taller and regain a semblance of equality with hitters. Next, outlaw the stuff that turned Mark McGwire into Godzilla and transforms light-hitting shortstops into the second coming of Mickey Mantle. Third, get that damned rabbit out of the ball--boffo box office be damned. Major-league home-run production jumped up significantly in 1995--the season after the divisive players' strike that almost put the game out of business--and it's been growing ever since. This gives rise to the suspicion that baseball's billionaire owners have conspired to provide their millionaire sluggers with a nouveau baseball Nomar Garciaparra can hit not only out of Fenway Park, but out of Yellowstone Park.

And if all that's still not enough to restore balance and shading and subtlety to this once-beautiful game, why not go completely radical and do what poor kids playing stickball on city streets used to do to keep their precious pink "Spaldeen" off the rooftops and happily in play: Declare the home run an out.


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