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As Long as We Remember...

August 30, 2002

For Professional Baseball, It's Always Strike Two

Ronald W. Wolf

(Editor's Note: This column was written prior to the deadline for the Major League Players Association to strike.)

With the warning siren for a baseball strike apparently about to wail, Major League Baseball faces another crisis. It's not baseball's first, or last. Baseball weathered its previous strikes and work stoppages. It will again, because baseball is a tradition that we cannot abandon any more than we can abandon the Fourth of July.

The common wisdom is that if Major League Baseball players strike again they will lose enough fans to permanently damage the game. It turns out that the baseball owners actually want a strike. The owners will use the strike to justify recent efforts to lop a couple of teams off - contraction to use Bud Selig's term. Say goodbye to Montreal and Minnesota and maybe more teams as well.

Those who think a strike is the end of baseball point out there are alternatives - several in fact. College and professional football have just started. And winter sports will be in training camp in October, if you can wait another month. Next year there is soccer.

The doomsayers for baseball are wrong if they believe disenfranchised baseball fans will turn to soccer. Soccer in the United States is a curious phenomenon. For several decades, prognosticators have said things such as, "When all the kids who are playing soccer now grow up, then major professional soccer will explode. They'll encourage their kids to love and play the game. Soccer will replace baseball as the national game."

That statement, or ones similar to it, has been said since the 1960's. Remember the Washington Darts? Well, the generation of kids playing soccer in Maryland in the 1960's did grow up, and they resented like hell having the Washington Senators, however miserable a team they were, stolen away. If they weren't Oriole fans, they became ones. If they were Oriole fans, they never stopped being Oriole fans. And even if they did encourage their kids to play soccer, it was because soccer requires little expense for equipment or uniforms, was better exercise for children anyway, and was a good learning and social experience too.

Not too much scoring in soccer so no one gets clobbered 40-0 and no feelings are hurt. And a soccer ball won't take a bad hop and a couple of teeth with it. But those soccer-playing kids from the 1960's and 1970's and 1980's grew up to love baseball (and football and basketball) better than soccer.

Baseball also includes a lot of numbers - more than any other sport - which fascinate little boys who turn into fascinated adults. All baseball players accumulate an enormous list of statistics. Enough it turns out the fill an encyclopedia - The Baseball Encyclopedia - of which there is a new edition every five or six years. And if that's not enough, we have Cal Ripkin's consecutive game streak or Bobby Bonds' current home run total. Think there' s any interest in an encyclopedia of statistics on offensive lineman? For that matter, how many copies of the soccer encyclopedia have been sold? Basketball is the only other major sport where statistics junkies can get a fix, but do you have a basketball encyclopedia?

No other sport has a history like baseball's either. Name some professional basketball players from the 1940's. Name a football player from the 1930's other than Sammy Baugh. Name a football player from the 1920's. (OK, Jim Thorpe, who once by the way, being a Native American, organized a team that consisted entirely of Native Americans. No, they weren't called the Indians, weren't very good, and disbanded after a couple of years.)

Since we're side tracked, here's another Jim Thorpe story. The town of Mauck Chunk in Pennsylvania bought Jim Thorpe's body, moved it to Mauck Chunk, and renamed the town Jim Thorpe. The idea was to promote tourism. I went there so I guess it worked.

But baseball traditionalists will easily be able to counter that with the current Ted Williams Popsicle story. And who knows, some day, since money drives all forces of nature, you may live in a town called Ted Williams, presumably in a cold climate.

Baseball has a thousand stories for every story from other sports, and we love stories. Any adult baseball fan, by the way, can name several dozen players from the 1920's or earlier or tell you that Babe Ruth was a 20-game winner as a pitcher before he became famous for pounding home runs. The curse of Babe Ruth - there's baseball lore for you. There's Cy Young, Walter Johnson, Wee Willie Keeler, and Ty Cobb. There's the myth about Abner Doubleday inventing baseball and the "Black Sox" scandal.

Later, we have brave Jackie Robinson. You could create an encyclopedia. Baseball will survive because it has traditions and a history like no other sports. And we hold on to traditions as if they were alive, and whether it's good or bad, we love to live in the past.

Basketball and football have decades to go before they will have the traditions baseball has. As for soccer, your kids and grandkids and great-grandkids and their kids all have to become adults before soccer has any traditions - at least the kind of traditions that mean something to sports fans in the United States.

Will a strike hurt professional baseball? It will, but baseball will survive because we don't abandon traditions. As for professional soccer, it needs a curse of Pele.

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