Ignore those nasty scandals, America's pastime still enchants die-hard fans

Posted: Sunday, March 07, 2004

It's miserably wet outside after raining all night and morning. Southcentral Alaska is weathering a rather improbable early March warm spell that has a winter's accumulation of snow taking a powder.

There's mud everywhere. It's the kind day when you can't drive 100 yards before the spray from the car ahead lathers your windshield in brown goop. A few miles later, the wiper fluid runs out and you're driving blind.

There's no blue in the steel-gray sky and as far away as the horizon, anything beyond those insipid earth tones must be part of a neon sign. Everything suggests winter's over, but you know that's not true, not by a long shot.

So, is this cabin-fever climate depressing? Nah. In fact, all is right with the world. Spring training games have started.

I'm listening right now to an Internet broadcast from Vero Beach, Fla., a Grapefruit League contest between the L.A. Dodgers and the N.Y. Mets. (It's already summer there, you know.) I've cheered for both those teams at different times back when I was young, so, for me, this chance match-up offers a kind of cosmic balance. Fact is, though, it wouldn't have mattered much who was playing. I just like having a game in the audio background of my day.

Perhaps it's the tradition and history of opening day that appeals. OK, the real "Opening Day" is still a month away, but this is the next best thing.

Maybe it's just the sense of possibility that attends the start of each new season, a time when fans put aside the desperation and disappointments of last year in anticipation of a better tomorrow, sort of like the myth of New Year's Day.

It's been a stretch since the Marlin's anticlimactic World Series victory last fall. Remem-ber that yawner? It was the one nobody really cared about because anyone who truly loved baseball realized a Boston Red Sox-Chicago Cubs match-up would have put their respective "curses" on the line and produced the series of the century. But they both choked big time. At least Chicago's demise produced a bit of drama the Bartman incident. More on that later.

For me, winter is a sports limbo of sorts. Football doesn't generally fill the void, though this year's complement of playoff games were some of the best I can remember. There's golf, of course, a game I stink at but one I like to watch on TV. So, parts of weekend days through February were spent on the couch, watching Tiger, Ernie, Vijay and the rest. But that was largely a way to fill the vacuum before baseball begins. From spring to mid fall, the great game is played virtually every day. There's no waiting. It's instant gratification.

March will split me between spring training games, which have no meaning save feeding my addiction, and the March Madness of the NCAA college basketball tourney. That'll get me through the bleak times still left in the heart of Alaska's winter.

Face it, there's more snow coming.

The 2004 Major League baseball season begins March 30, but you'll need a ticket on the Orient Express. With a nod to the fact that baseball may arguably be Japan's national pastime, too, (or, maybe it's just the money), the New York Yankees are scheduled to play two games against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in Tokyo. This is entirely understandable, especially now that Japanese imports like Ichiro Suzuki (Seattle Mariners) and Hideki Matsui (N.Y. Yankees) are rewriting the record books here in the states.

Officially, Major League Baseball opens here April 4. As jazzed as I am, I view the approach of the season with a measure of concern over the fallout to come from the steroid scandal. If and it appears more than likely some of today's superstars have super sized themselves through the wonders of modern science, they will have robbed us of some of the magic.

I'm not nave. The cheating has always been there from Ty Cobb's vicious spikes to Sammy Sosa's corked bat. The get-an-edge-at-any-cost attitude exhibited by some of the richest men in baseball players and owners alike is a part of the modern game.

I prefer ignoring that part, and in the heat of a good game, I can. I'm just annoyed these latest revelations have intruded on my fantasy. For this, the perpetrators should be punished, maybe even booted. Fat chance. The suspects are moneymaking machines.

Fortunately, for every blue note baseball blows there's an orchestra's worth of reasons to dance. Take the recent ceremony in Chicago that climaxed with the destruction of the dreaded "Bartman Ball."

Steve Bartman was the unfortunate Cubs fan that exercised his right to reach for a foul ball that just might have been snagged by leftfielder Moises Alou. He was quickly on the road to becoming the toast of the town burnt toast, that is, had the wrong Chicago fans gotten hold of him.

Unless you've been living under a rock, you know the Cubs were up 3-0 and just five outs from victory in Game 6 of the National League Championship when the incident occurred. They gave up eight runs that inning and lost, and then lost Game 7, ending their bid for a trip to the World Series, a ride they haven't enjoyed since 1908.

Of course, Bartman had nothing at all to do with Chicago's collapse, but he added another layer of mystique to the Chicago's "Curse of the Goat." While not quite as legendary nor as universally felt as Boston's "Curse of the Bambino," which began a decade later, it has been an equally painful historical reality. At least in Chicago.

A group of investors known as the Harry Carey's Restaurant Group purchased the ball at auction for $113,824. Late last month, in an event attended by hundreds of fans singing "Take Me Out To The Ballgame," the ball was exploded, leaving little but threads. Fans there want to believe it will end the curse forever.

Right. Goat cheese, anyone?

Ya gotta love this game.

Hal Spence is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion.

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