The Pits of the Grapefruit League

The Pits of the Grapefruit League

East Haddam, Conn. — Baseball is in the air, or more accurately, on the air these winter days. The grapefruit league’s juices flow freely during the evening sportscasts. But the game seems different this season, different than last year and vastly different from what it was just three decades ago, when Willie Mays gracefully patrolled green pastures.

Today, the hardest ball is often played by the athletes' agents. Team owners (one in particular comes to mind) can steal the headlines. The big story of late is not how the game’s greatest hitter (Wade Boggs) is hitting; it’s about whom he is hitting on, once upon a time.

“He miffed and he swung” — as Darryl Strawberry (Rhubarb?) did at his Met teammate Keith Hernandez — not “he swung and he missed,” sums up this new tabloid baseball. Rivalries seem most acute between fellow millionaires on the same team.

Is it just a coincidence that the new manager of the New York Yankees is named “Dallas” and that he is hoping to revive the former pinstripe “dynasty.” Perhaps the team’s principal owner George Steinbrenner, who hasn’t been able to buy a pennant in a decade, is smarter than he appears.

For if baseball is to be with us from winter right through until fall, then it makes sense that hits, runs and even victories may not be enough to sustain our interest. So
what we fans are being fed is more titillating fare, such as lawsuits per nine innings, dumbest quotes of the week, and league leaders in moral turpitude. At the end of each interminable season, when the M.V.P.’s are crowned, the acronym should henceforth represent “Most Voluble Player.”

Those who are hostile to conspiracy theories, or who are not willing to entertain the notion that George Steinbrenner may be smarter than he appears, will have other explanations for tabloid baseball. A Frenchman once wrote that to know America one must learn baseball. Well, our national sport is different today because our nation is greatly changed. But if, indeed, we see our reflection in the green (Astroturf) diamond, saints preserve us.

In days of yore, it was inconceivable that great all-around athletes like Ruth and Gehrig would choose anything but baseball as their career sport. The game and America were virtually synonomous. But today, a John Elway picks football over the Yankees (can you blame him?).

As baseball has waned here, however, it is one the rise abroad. In 1992 it will be an Olympic sport. The Soviets now play ball. The Japanses boast players with more career home runs than Hank Aaron and more consecutive games played than Lou Gehrig.

Sadly, there is a certain noisy desperation — a sense, too, of unreality — about modern American baseball. Multimillionaires pout as they run out singles at half-speed. These are not the boys of summer but the men-children of winter.

They want more than they have, which is already more than enough, but they don’t necessarily want to do more to earn it. They want more simply because the person playing next to them happens to be even more overpaid at the moment.

We fans have changed, too. With a burgeoning hunger we crave juicy tidbits about our alleged heroes private lives and public foibles. My boyhood idol, Willie Mays, went through a divorce during his playing career. That’s all I know about it. That’s all I ever want to know about it. It is all anyone need know about it. His ex-wife never sold her “story” to the press, which never thought of soliciting it from her. In those halcyon times, it was entertainment aplenty watching Willie Mays ply his trade.

When the time-traveling hero of Mark Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” tried to teach baseball to knight-errantry, he can’t convince his noble nine to leave their armor in the dugout. So “When a man was running, and threw himself on his stomach to slide to his base, it was like an ironclad coming into port.”

In like fashion, we can’t separate who we are from the game we call our national pastime.