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The Sports Section

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People complain about the lack of baseball--some of them do, anyway--but I don't know what they're talking about. Why, just this week I saw Frank Thomas hitting a long homer to right center. There was Greg Maddux sending a change-up dipping into the lower inside corner against a right-handed batter--Matt Williams, I think it was. And what do you know, there was even Ryne Sandberg ranging into short right field to scoop up a grounder, pirouetting, and throwing out the batter at first. And there was Bill Mazeroski turning a double play with stunning swiftness.

Because baseball separates its teams player by player in the course of action, it has an uncanny ability to place images in the mind. This is the source of much of its appeal, it's what is getting many of us through the baseball strike, and it's certainly what makes it a delightful sport for writers.

Baseball, even in its most routine moments, has a grip on the imagination. A fan can do one of two things--follow the path of the ball as it's struck and thrown around, or follow the path of the runners as they round the bases--and because both are so ingrained in our thought processes we easily imagine the one while concentrating on the other, until the inevitable moment when ball and base runner intersect. And because baseball's play is so orderly, its statistical applications are almost endless. A pitcher deflects a ground ball to the second baseman, who throws out the batter, and the pitcher is credited with an assist. In football, how does one earn statistical credit for a well-placed block? In basketball, if Bill Cartwright sets a screen for Michael Jordan, it's Scottie Pippen who gets the assist for passing to Jordan before he even cut around the screen.

That's why baseball has a unique ability to be freeze-dried into box scores that can be defrosted by fans over the morning coffee. Its images spring to life at the beck and call of numbers and names on a page. "Nine strikeouts, no walks, and one run for Maddux last night!" And we can see that he must have had a good fastball, heading for the center of the plate and then swaying outside beyond the reach of the left-handed batter, in addition to the usual called third strikes on change-ups dipping for the corner. I can see him touching the glove to the nape of his neck, kicking down the mound with his left leg straightened and chest thrown out, and giving that distinctive little hop in the follow-through to get himself into fielding position--and it's all been projected out of numbers in a box score that doesn't even exist, that was made up at this moment for this purpose.

That's why these so-called fantasy seasons the newspapers are dallying in have proved to be an interesting experiment, even as they have been something of a flop. I tend to agree with Jim Litke, of the Associated Press, who in one column called these computer-generated statistics methadone for baseball fanatics. Yet I plead guilty to checking in on them every few days to see if Matt Williams is going to break Roger Maris's home-run record, if Tony Gwynn is going to hit .400, and if Frank Thomas is going to win the triple crown (no on all three counts, it appears, although Gwynn and Williams are still in the running). This make-believe baseball has helped us weather the strike because it has kept the pictures fresh in our minds.

Yet even more rewarding has been the Tribune's practice of printing real baseball box scores and game leads from the past, always on the specific calendar date they originally occurred. When the Trib ran Kenny Holtzman's 1969 no-hitter, it opened a treasure trove of memories and images, from Holtzman's pitching motion itself--very similar to Maddux's, only a mirror image, as Holtzman was left-handed--to Billy Williams catching Hank Aaron's long fly ball against the ivy in the left field well after the wind had pushed it back onto the field.

That game, in turn, sent me back to a couple of my favorite games. I keep the programs and scorecards handy on the shelf with all my baseball books, but it had been years since I last drew them out. Yes, there's LaMarr Hoyt's near-perfect night in 1984, when he faced the minimum 27 batters in beating the New York Yankees 6-0. I can still remember how cold it was in the stands that night, but Hoyt--with his flapping long sleeves--was nevertheless sharp: an uncharacteristic six strikeouts in the first six innings and nothing remotely resembling a hit. Don Mattingly broke up the perfect game with a flare to left field in the seventh, and I can still remember the immense disappointment of seeing that ball drop in. Mattingly was then erased on a double-play grounder by Steve Kemp, and Hoyt went on to finish the greatest game I've ever seen pitched.

And then, of course, there's the greatest game I've ever seen played: game four of the 1983 American League Championship Series. Britt Burns, who had slipped from ace of the staff to a mediocre 10-10 during the season, pitched the game of his life, holding the Baltimore Orioles scoreless for nine innings. Harold Baines, hitting in tough luck, was knocking shots all over the park but couldn't buy a clutch base hit. With Carlton Fisk on first base in the first inning, Baines hit one hard up the middle, but Cal Ripken Jr. got to it, stepped on second, and threw to first for the double play. Then Baines hit a frozen rope to left field in the fourth--right at Gary Roenicke. "Damn," with arrows drawn to both the first and fourth frames, is written in my scorecard between the two. And then, of course, there was Greg Walker leading off the bottom of the seventh with a single to left. Vance Law followed by singling to left through a pell-mell Baltimore infield, as the Orioles had been expecting a bunt. Then Jerry Dybzinski, supposedly the best bunter on the team, deflected a 3-1 pitch right off the plate, and catcher Rick Dempsey pounced on it and threw to third to force Walker. And finally, with the play right in front of him, the Dybber tried to go from first to third on Julio Cruz's single to left--and ran right into Vance Law. I can still remember the Dybber chugging around second, head down, looking up to see Law perched on third, and then looking up, with horror, at the skies. End of rally. Burns gave up a homer to Tito Landrum in the tenth, and I remember his long, slow trudge to the dugout and the sustained but dirgelike applause after manager Tony LaRussa removed him from the game.

It's clearer to me than last Friday's Bears exhibition game, all because at some point I was taught the code of the baseball scorecard and took the trouble to inscribe it forever on that October afternoon.

That's what's getting us through the strike, our imaginations, and it looks as if very much more imagination is going to be required of us before it's all over. The reports a week ago Thursday that talks had broken off between players and owners--just when it appeared a settlement might possibly save the season in time for Labor Day--were shattering news. A season-ending strike now seems quite possible and increasingly probable, opening a Pandora's box for baseball.

David Peterson of Evergreen Park was kind enough to respond to my last column with a letter including a December 1989 Z magazine article on the Players League written by Sheldon Sunness. The parallels between 1889 and 1994 are easily drawn, but never so clearly as in this passage: "An even more serious problem cropped up in the late Eighties: baseball boomed, sending profits soaring. The problem was that costs soared as well, and because gate receipts were largely kept by the home clubs, the league's smaller cities did not get to share the wealth their bigger partners enjoyed. At National League meetings, the owners arrived at two possible solutions: either share the gate receipts more equitably, or squeeze the players' salaries even further."

Drop the last two words and add "television revenues" to "gate receipts" and it's a perfect description of the situation leading up to the present strike. The players resorted back then to forming the Players League, and I think we'll see similar strategy this winter if the strike isn't settled in time for play to resume this year.

Yet the 1890 Players League had problems a new players league would almost certainly share. For one thing, although players are more moneyed now than they were then they would almost certainly have to be bankrolled by new owners, with profits split according to some percentage. That's if there are profits in the first season, given the rigors of creating the apparatus in ticket sales and marketing that major-league teams already have set up. That's if a new league can find places to play. The White Sox may yet regret that the new Comiskey Park is publicly owned, but I don't know what exclusivity clauses they have written into their lease agreement. And all that's if players can be declared free of their individual contracts. Established teams would no doubt fight a new league in the courts on both these last two fronts, if only to keep the league from starting next spring. And even if the league did get going it almost certainly wouldn't be 28 teams strong, and even if all the players did want to move over there wouldn't be enough room. And what would become of those who didn't make it? Would the old clubs have them back?

Finally, profits would be small across the board in such a competitive environment, and while baseball attendance on the whole might rise--as it did in 1890--most teams would probably lose money, just as they did in 1890. That's a situation that favors the established clubs. After the 1890 season the National League owners, led by Albert Spalding, convinced the "owners" of the Players League to fold up shop-- thus selling the players out. Today's players have more resources and would almost certainly last more than one year. With expansion fees running close to $100 million, new owners would almost certainly flock to the new league, hoping eventually to get into the majors through an inevitable merger down the road at the relatively bargain-basement price of $50 million in short-term losses. But in the meantime the situation would offer all the chaos of pure revolution. What would the minor leagues do? Would major-league baseball lose its antitrust exemption? What would be the ramifications--if any--of such a move in Congress? We've just scratched the surface of possible problems.

All of which boils down to two conclusions: those who don't study history are doomed to repeat it; and for a baseball fan with imagination, the upcoming events, if the strike ends the season, will be as exciting as they are uncertain.

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