I see by the melting snow and the euphoric look on John Lowe’s face that it is once again spring and therefore time for Opening Day. But before the baseball zombies attack my house like creatures from “Night of the Living Dead,” banging on my windows with their fantasy league stat books and chanting, “Come ouuuut. Come ouuuut. Choose a pennant winner . . . or . . . DIE!” let me say this:
John. Zombies. The rest of you.
I have bad news:
Baseball ain’t the same.
And it is no longer King.
This has nothing to do with the fact that the average baseball player today is richer than a Middle East oil cartel, yet possesses all the manners of — can I be blunt here? — a goat.
It has nothing to do with the fact that your average baseball owner is either a greed-crazed business tycoon, a religious zealot or dumber than a barrel of hair.
It has nothing to do with the fact that for every story about a baseball star cracking a home run or leaping to catch a ball, there is another story about him cracking his Jaguar into his wife’s Mercedes or leaping onto the first female who happens to smile.
Do I sound bitter?
Sorry. It’s just that I loved this game. I truly did. As a child, I sold programs at the stadium. I got goose bumps with the first crack of the bat. I smelled hot dogs on Opening Day and felt like I would never grow old.
That was then.
Today, the only people who still see baseball as “pastoral theater played on warm, grassy chessboards” are 1) Roger Angell, 2) George Will and 3) Death Row inmates. All of whom have no idea what is really going on in the world.
Wake up and smell the blotter sheets.
Here is what I see in baseball: salaries going up. Players arrested. Salaries going up. Players fighting with fans. Salaries going up. Players charging for autographs. Salaries going up. Jose Canseco behind the wheel.
The fact is, our national pastime has become one expensive, avaricious, rumor-filled, statistic-heavy TV show. Oh sure, the game itself is still fine. The game itself is innocent, fresh, understandable — everything John says it is. The problem is not the game. It’s the people who play it.
And own it.
And call it. And advertise it. And profit from it.
And are about to ruin it.
Here is what I see: baseball surviving on tradition, on memory, people wanting to believe it is still the game of their youth, fathers playing catch with sons, take me out to the ballgame, the Splendid Splinter, the Polo Grounds, Ernie Harwell, Mickey and the Duke.
I would like to believe that, too.
I would also like the tooth fairy to visit my room.
There’s a long way between what used to be and what is in baseball. For example:
* What used to be: Lou Gehrig, about to cry, telling fans, “Today, I am the luckiest man in the world.”
* What is: Rickey Henderson, about to cry, telling fans, “Today, I am underpaid” — at $3 million a year.
* What used to be: Joe DiMaggio kissing Marilyn Monroe, in a ballyhooed marriage of the Matinee Idols.
* What is: David Cone, Mets pitcher, calling women “groupies,” then seeing those same women charge him with pulling down his pants and masturbating in the bullpen.
* What used to be: Babe Ruth pointing to the fences and saying, “You, baseball, that’s where I’m hitting you out.”
* What is: Faye Vincent pointing to Pete Rose and saying, “You, baseball’s all-time hit leader, are banished from the game for gambling.”
* What used to be: Al Kaline, returning part of his pay after a sub-par year.
* What is: Danny Tartabull, who hit .245 this spring, building a $30 million house in Southern California, complete with movie theater, water slide and 3,500-square-foot master bedroom.
* What used to be: The dying kid in the hospital who asks the slugger to “hit one out for me.”
* What is: Hordes of 12-year-old businessmen hounding players for autographs, then selling them at a profit.
* What used to be: Ted Williams, having played his whole career for the Boston Red Sox, hitting a home run in his last at-bat.
* What is: Jack Morris, having cried with joy upon returning to Minnesota, bolting after one year when Toronto offered more cash.
* What used to be: Dizzy Dean, given $50,000 for the movie rights to his life story, saying, “Jeez. They’re giving me 50,000 smackers just for living.”
* What is: Darryl Strawberry making big money from a controversial autobiography that he not only didn’t write, but admits he didn’t read.
* What used to be: Bill Veeck, the colorful Chicago owner, insisting that his team put on a show for the fans.
* What is: George Steinbrenner, insisting that he is the show.
* What used to be: A poem about Mudville, which had no joy once the Mighty Casey struck out.
* What is: A film called “Major League,” in which a wicked owner tries to sabotage her team so she can move it to Florida and make a bundle.
* What used to be: Mothers listening to radios and keeping a scorecard for their sons, so they would know what happened when they got home from school.
* What is: Middle-aged businessmen spending hours of office time on fantasy league phone calls in a sad attempt to put some fun in their lives.
OK. OK. You get the point. It is not a pretty picture.
But, having said that, let me say this: I will give baseball another chance. I will give it a hundred more chances. Because while it may not be King, while it may not even be Prince, the one thing that hasn’t changed in baseball is hope. Hope that your team will rally in the ninth inning. Hope that your favorite player won’t swing at the first pitch. Hope that the rain cloud that is following you as you drive to the stadium won’t burst open just as you take your seat.
So, John, you have hopes. Zombies, you have hopes. Here, on this particular Opening Day, as the weather warms and the stadium fills and the umpire tugs on his mask and hollers, “Play ball!” here is my one hope: that the game this country can love as no other will not, in the end, wind up going to the dogs.
Or goats, as the case may be.