“I believe in the church of baseball.”

From the movie “Bull Durham” ANAHEIM, Calif. — We have a problem. We’ve had a fight. We have fallen out of love with the sport that used to delight us, and now baseball has come back, holding flowers, asking for forgiveness.

This will not come quickly. For some, it might not come at all. I begin to make my peace the way I knew I would once I arrived here, at the hotel, for tonight’s Tigers opener against the California Angels.

I call John Doherty’s room. At 9 a.m.

Sleeping.

I call at 10.

Still sleeping.

I call at 11. Already, I’m laughing.

“Hel . . . lo?” says the groggy voice.

“Nice of you to get up.”

“Huh? . . . Ummmzzmt. . . . I’m up, I’m up.”

You look for reasons to give baseball another chance? John Doherty is my reason. Here, under the covers of another road- trip hotel room, is a major league pitcher who still acts like a kid. He still looks like a kid. He still talks like a kid. Lord knows, he still sleeps like a kid. Sometimes I think John Doherty is part of a Disney movie that wandered off the set.

“Something to drink?” the waitress asks when he finally plops down at the table, just after noon.

“Chocolate milk,” he says.

Chocolate milk?

In the world of greed and ego that is now major league baseball, we desperately seek exceptions. John Doherty is an exception. He is 27, has a fastball that moves better than most, and this is how much he cares about money: He has never seen his bi-weekly paycheck. It gets sent home to his mother and father on Long Island, and he trusts they will take care of it.

He has no expensive habits, no house, no fleet of cars. He doesn’t even have a bank card for cash. He lives pretty much off the per diem envelopes they give him — $62.50 a day — and even that, he has left over.

“Look at me, I mean, whadda I need?” he says, in a Long Island accent as thick as the Hershey’s syrup in his milk. “I wear sweatpants every day of my life. I don’t own any $2,000 suits. If I’m running out of money, I tell my fiancee to bring some of mine when she comes to visit.

“I just wanna play baseball, you know?” Contracts replaced bat and ball

We thought we knew. We kidded ourselves into believing the game was the thing, that players were just happy to be there. We found out otherwise. We learned of unions, free agency, revenue sharing, lockouts. Baseball became a board room, contracts replaced the bat and ball, and in the most recent confrontation, the players walked out and took away the World Series.

John Doherty went home to Long Island, to his bedroom in his parents’ house. And he slowly went nuts.

At night he would go out with his old friends and play darts at a bar, and all the competitive juices would flow. “Take it easy,” they would say, “it’s just darts.”

During the day he would drive his uncle, who lives upstairs, back and forth to work, or do some shopping for his mom. Day after day, he would go to his high school gym and throw pitches to his former coach, a former minor leaguer named Dom Cecere. It was Cecere who used to urge his players by howling, “You gotta love this great American game of baseball!”

Now Doherty would throw to him, a major leaguer just looking to break a sweat. One time he began to zone out, imagining himself back in The Show, ninth inning, 3-2 count . . .

The ball began to hum. Then zip. Then hurt.

“Yeoowch!” Cecere yelled, shaking his glove. “What are you tryin’ to do? Kill me?”

“Sorry,” Doherty said. “For a second there, I thought I was back.” Anger remains . . . for now

Now, of course, they are back. The Tigers open tonight. The games count. But it still feels artificial. The anger remains. It takes some getting used to.

So I concentrate on Doherty. I listen — as he gulps down eggs and toast, the breakfast menu, even though it is lunchtime — and he talks about how he flew to spring training early because he was “pumped up,” and how he asked whether he could ride with the trainer to pick up Alan Trammell and Kirk Gibson at the airport, and how he has been wearing the same glove the last few years, a Cal Ripken model he bought at Herman’s Sporting Goods for $45.

Herman’s Sporting Goods?

“John,” his more savvy teammates told him, “companies will pay you to wear their glove.”

“Yeah,” he said, “but I like this one.”

Recently, he was told what the strike cost him in dollars. About $100,000.

His reaction: “Whoa!”

He has come back to play. He pitches Friday night in Seattle, and he freely admits, “I’ve always known how lucky I am.” I ask whether he sympathized with the replacement players who tried to earn a moment in the sun.

“Yeah,” he says, “but there’s more to playing major league baseball than playing in a major league park.”

Indeed there is. And some of his spoiled contemporaries had better learn it.

You gotta love this great American game. I think about that sentence. It’s a new season, and for me, a new set of standards. I no longer care about the sneering Barry Bonds, the brooding Roger Clemens, or the wasted glory of Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry. From this moment forward, my definition of a great ballplayer has nothing to do with talent.

My definition of a great ballplayer is one who loves the game the way he should love it. That is my church. John Doherty is the first one in. The healing begins.

Play ball.

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