Smells like baseball

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    BY JOEL WHITE

    It’s the most wonderful time of the year.

    No, not Christmas, but today, March 31.

    It’s opening day, the start of a new Major League Baseball season. It’s the time of year when every team has a shot at the pennant. Every pitcher is a 20-game winner. Every hitter is on pace to break Roger Maris’ homer record.

    Like the flowers that should be blooming this time of year, the long baseball season is set to start blooming Tuesday, signifying the official arrival of spring.

    Opening day comes at the perfect time during the school year. Assignments are piling up and finals are just around the corner.

    But there are still the sure signs of the new baseball season: My fantasy baseball teams are set, my city league softball team is gearing up for a new season, I got the new Strat-O-Matic teams, I’m set to buy tickets for the Buzz’s opening night next week, and the Cougars are finally home after that monster road trip and they’re scoring their normal 15 runs a game.

    And most important, spring training is over.

    Aaaaaah, baseball. It is here to stay, for at least six more months.

    The game itself is so simple, it’s perfect: throw the ball, hit the ball, catch the ball.

    But all is not perfect in the MLB world. As any follower of the game will tell you, there are many problems with the game.

    First of all, baseball doesn’t have a commissioner. The owners like Bud Selig, who owns the Milwaukee Brewers, is in the driver’s seat. Why would anyone want the commissioner’s job, when the owners will vote him or her out of power at the drop of a hat?

    Look what happened to Faye Vincent. The owners didn’t like him so they voted him out in 1992. Since then, Selig, chairman of baseball’s executive committee, has been interim commissioner. The owners are happy with Selig, one of their own, as the commish.

    Players’ salaries are going through the roof, and it appears as if there is no end in sight to the limit the owners are willing to shell out for top-notch athletes. Seattle’s Randy Johnson and Boston’s Mo Vaughn will play out the last years of their respective contracts in 1998, and are expected to command around $12 to $15 million per year in the free-agent market next year. What does the future hold? Salaries will continue to escalate, and as long as there are owners willing to spend, the salaries are going to get more out of hand.

    Since the devastating strike of 1994, Major League Baseball has tried hard to get disgruntled fans back in the seats, which is one of the reasons interleague play was introduced last season.

    I’m not a traditionalist, but I do not like interleague play. Baseball officials claim it will create rivalries and get fans in the seats. However, rivalries are not formed by geography. They are created through meaningful games or a series.

    Like the Dodgers and Giants and their years in New York. Chicago and St. Louis and their tough battles of the late ’60s. When the Mariners and the Yankees meet, some of the most exciting baseball of the season is played. The two teams have no geographical rivalry, yet they have a competitive disgust for each other that goes back to the exciting American League divisional series of 1995. That’s what creates rivalries.

    Interleague play was popular last year because it was a new thing. It was a novelty. After the first two interleague series, ticket sales for the third fell off somewhat, according to MLB attendance records.

    Non-baseball fans think the game moves too slowly. Baseball by nature is a slow-paced game. Efforts to speed up the game, like former Oakland A’s owner and baseball experimentalist Charlie Finley’s idea of the three-ball walk, have failed. This year, the umpires are going to be more strict reducing the time hitters and pitchers can take between pitches.

    Baseball is more a display of strategy and not so much action. The preparation for the action is usually more exciting than the action itself. So many different variables change from pitch to pitch. Among other things, defensive positionings, location of pitches, and a hitter’s aggressiveness can change with every pitch. Such intricacies are what make baseball such a joy to watch. Anyone with an attention span of more than two minutes can understand the beauty of a ball game.

    A baseball writer once wrote, “One ‘takes in’ a baseball game as one ‘takes in’ a movie or a play.” The attentive fan becomes involved in the game, a part of the game. Fans are not bystanders, they are participants.

    Despite its problems and imperfections, baseball is synonymous with spring. And like spring, the excitement of the new baseball season fades around June. But the game remains the same until October.

    Throw the ball, hit the ball, catch the ball.

    So simple, it’s perfect.

    Just like spring.

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