The greatest game lives on

We took our twin grandsons to the circus recently, and they showed up in full baseball regalia: Washington Nationals hats and shirts. When we got home they grabbed their bats and helmets and dragged their father to the local park, despite the chilly, gray day.

This is not a knock on the circus. The acrobats were breathtaking, and the clowns hilarious. But the circus is a special treat. Baseball is an ordinary, everyday event for six months. You can’t practice riding elephants in the backyard. And you can’t root for your hometown tightrope walkers to beat the jugglers from across the river.

Spring is here. Baseball is back. Sure, you can get the results on the Internet, seconds after a game is over, and you can watch video highlights on ESPN before going to bed. But breakfast simply tastes better while reading box scores from the night before. We’ll have the multigrain bagel, please, with a side order of statistics.

Because baseball threads its way through daily life, hometown loyalties are particularly enduring. Steve grew up in New Jersey, across the Hudson River from New York City, and has rooted for the Yankees since 1949, the year he turned 6, the exact age of our grandsons today.



We haven’t lived in New York for almost 40 years, but one wall of Steve’s office is still a shrine to the Bronx Bombers. And one of his birthday presents, when he turned 65 this winter, was a framed photo of Joe DiMaggio, the great Yankee star of his childhood.

Our grandchildren taunt Steve with chants of “Yankees stink” (or worse), but the truth is, they should root for their own home team, not their grandfather’s. That’s the whole point of baseball. Teebs (as the grandkids call Steve) even gave the boys their Nats gear. And modern technology now means that mobile Americans do not have to give up their hometown connections even when they move away.

It used to be that if you left home, you could see your old team on TV only occasionally, on Saturday’s “Game of the Week.” Cable outlets like ESPN and Fox Sports then added a few more national games, but today, most satellite or cable services offer baseball packages that allow you to see every Boston Red Sox game in Red Bluff, Calif., at the flick of a switch.

Many baseball games used to be carried on high-powered AM radio stations, and true fans – exiled to strange cities – would spend summer evenings desperately hunting for a scratchy signal from home. At game time, dozens of devotees would park in the lot of the National Cathedral, the highest point in Washington and the best place to catch out-of-town broadcasts.

In one car, the radio would be tuned to WLW in Cincinnati, for the Reds game. In the next, the Tigers were on WJR from Detroit. Now computers and satellite radios allow any fan to hear any game from any place.

This technology helps explain why baseball is enjoying such a renaissance. Attendance set a new record last season, almost 80 million, and revenues are expected to top $6 billion this year, three times what the sport generated only a decade ago.

All the loose talk that faster and fancier sports – pro football, NASCAR, X-Games – would consign baseball to the dugout of history turned out to be dead wrong. So did the fear that free agency – which now allows players to switch teams in search of better pay – would kill off old loyalties. The fans still root for their town and their team, no matter who is wearing the uniform.

Even though God clearly created baseball (a faint outline of a diamond has been unearthed at an archeological site long believed to be the Garden of Eden), She clearly made some mistakes. The steroid scandal has blighted the game in recent years, and baseball officials have been slow to set up thorough testing mechanisms.

Baseball is also plagued by extreme imbalances in revenue. Yankee star Alex Rodriguez makes $28 million this year, more than the entire roster of the Florida Marlins combined. The result is that many teams in smaller markets start the season with no real hope of reaching the playoffs. Even Yankee fans have to admit that’s wrong.

But when your grandsons troop off to the park, bats slung over their shoulders, baseballs pounding into their gloves, you can rest assured that our greatest game lives on, for another season in the sun.

Steve Roberts’ latest book is “My Fathers’ Houses: Memoir of a Family” (William Morrow, 2005). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at stevecokie@gmail.com.

Copyright 2008, Newspaper Enterprise Assn.

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