SPORTS

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May 23, 2003

Purist fans nostalgic for old-time baseball need look no further

Is it fading?

By the time you get to reading this, the first Red Sox-Yankees games of the season will have been played. They are neck-and-neck, tied for first in the American League East, and by the time you get to reading this one team will have drawn first blood, made the first fresh pinprick of the 102nd year of baseball's oldest rivalry. There will be wooden bats, the Green Monster, and the Red Seat, and before this series is through, someone will have said, "this is classic baseball."

But maybe it will just have been talk. The cynics can say that baseball was made for the '50s, when Teresa Brewer wrote "I Love Mickey" and Bernard Malamud wrote The Natural. Joe DiMaggio was a public hero in those days, while today we dress our greats in suits and give them announcing gigs in which they have nothing better to do than brag about their younger days. Cynics can say that the last great hero, the one for whom the Red Seat was claimed, was laid to rest last season. Ted Williams is gone, they can say, and baseball has all but passed.

And we hate to admit it, but it feels like the truth. All those criticisms come back in a flood: Barry Bonds is too recalcitrant to be a hero; Miller Park is too gauche to be a home field; the All-Star game is too tied to be an All-Star game. Here we are, leaning forward in the plastic seats of U.S. Cellular Field, peering up at the enormous right-field billboard that says "Fifth Third Bank." We are sitting here and looking at these things and listening to D'Angelo Jimenez's pump-up music, Sean Paul's dance-hall reggae hit "Safe Sex," and we have to admit that all this criticism feels like the truth. Commerce took over for folklore, U.S. Cellular for Comiskey, Sean Paul for Teresa Brewer.

The only time anyone talks about the Hall of Fame anymore is to ask if Pete Rose's gambling should keep him out, or if Tim Robbins's politics should stop the screening of Bull Durham. People are tired of reading Malamud and listening to optimists say "this is classic baseball." This is just game number 44 of 162, and Ted Williams was laid to rest last year. All we have now is the Red Seat, where he planted the longest home run of his career, 502 feet from home plate.

Ah-ha! But Teddy Ballgame was only frozen. He'll be back in a newfangled DNA experiment before we know it.

Commerce?! Commerce took over 100 years ago. Baseball suffered no great loss from the introduction--the marketing and sales--of The Bad News Bears, or the adaptation of Malamud's great novel into a full-blown star-studded movie. Can anyone honestly say they regret the naming of Wrigley Field after a major corporation, or the existence of Omar Vizquel salsa? Even "I Love Mickey" was just another ticket-selling ploy, using a sports hero and a girl with a syrupy voice to manipulate the public. No one felt abused. Baseball purists these days only wish they could get back to such an innocent time. Back when the players' union was weak and performance-enhancing drugs were less advanced.

No, baseball has always been like this, even if Malamud and W.P. Kinsella wished it wasn't. You take the good with the bad; you listen to the Sean Paul so you can watch the at-bat that follows. When Ted Williams comes back as a clone, there will be a commotion. But eventually, someone will see Ted Williams 3000 walking down the street and be forced to say, "there goes the greatest cloned hitter who ever lived."

The thing about great folklore is that even when it changes, the spirit remains the same. Pure baseball, the kind of baseball pursued in Kinsella's The Thrill of the Grass, the kind that Roy Hobbs played--it's just an idea. It's something Red Sox lovers tell their children as they buy them hot dogs at the ballpark. Commerce and naming rights don't kill it, any more than Teresa Brewer did when she sang her song. Times and aesthetics change, but the fact of the matter remains that great baseball games generate the same inspiration every time, and year after year, new fans are made by trips with fathers to the ballpark. Even U.S. Cellular, even Miller.

OK, so maybe the country isn't ready for Ted Williams 3000. But there's nothing tiring, nothing played-out about Red Sox-Yankees. Teddy Ballgame may be laid to rest, but with a fresh new pinprick every summer, that seat in the bleachers is still just as red as eve