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View from Lodi, CA: Abolishing America`s National Sport: The Decline of Baseball
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June 21, 2002, 05:00 AM
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When June rolls around, I realize how much I miss baseball.

Oh, I know that the Major League play started in April. When I`m channel surfing, I catch a quick look at a player waving a bat or a pitcher pacing around the mound. Those guys play a form of baseball but not the game I grew up with.

What I miss is the baseball that was lovingly called "the thinking man`s game." Players could hit and run, throw to the cut-off man and lay down a bunt. Batters knew the value of working the count in their favor and pitchers set out to go nine.

The players I watched in my youth performed dozens of these fundamental but vital baseball tasks. They weren`t the superstars from the New York Yankees or the old Brooklyn Dodgers.

I lived in Los Angeles before the Dodgers moved west. My team was the Hollywood Stars.

The Stars` rivals were the Pacific Coast League, Sacramento Solons, Oakland Oaks, and San Francisco Seals. Grizzled managers like Casey Stengel and Fred Haney didn`t tolerate players who couldn`t execute.

Los Angeles didn`t have major league baseball but I followed with a young boy`s passion the Yankees, my father`s team, and the hapless Pittsburgh Pirates, the parent team for the Stars.

My favorite players would be dwarfed by today`s pumped up monsters: Ernie Banks, 6` 1", 186 lb; Henry Aaron, 6`, 190 lb, Al Kaline, 6` 2", 184; Roberto Clemente, 5` 11", 185 lb., Willie Mays, 5` 11", 185 lb, Frank Robinson, 6`1", 190 and Ted Williams, a bean pole at 6`4", 190.

Earlier this week, I was disgusted when Sammy Sosa tied Stan Musial, 6`, 180 lb., for total career home runs, 475. Sosa`s name should not be mentioned in the same sentence with "Stan the Man", one of baseball`s superstars.

Does anyone doubt that Sosa`s feats at the plate haven`t been enhanced by anabolic steroids? Sosa`s forty pounds heavier than Musial but not half the player.

Despite tell-all confessions by Ken Caminiti and Jose Canseco, both of whom claim that over 50% of players take steroids, Major League Baseball looks the other way. Calls for drug testing—already in effect in basketball, football, Olympic performers and horse racing—fall on the deaf ears of baseball commissioner Bud Selig and union head Don Fehr.

Twenty-two of the thirty major league franchises report that 2002 attendance is down. Owners blame 9/11 but if you ask me, if fans want to see a freak show, they go to the circus not the ballpark.

My separation from baseball has been slow but irreversible. I was first put off in the late 1970s and early 1980s when cocaine scandals rocked baseball. Some of the game`s biggest stars—Most Valuable Players Dave Parker and Willie Stargell and All-Stars Keith Hernandez and Steve Howe among them—trafficked in drugs and admitted tooting cocaine regularly during the game.

Hernandez estimated that 40% of Major League players took cocaine regularly.

The 1982 American League batting champion Kansas City Royal Willie Wilson did a stretch for possessing cocaine and distributing it to his teammates.

When Roger Maris hit 61 home runs in 1961, the baseball czars added an asterisk to his record. But the record books don`t mention that Wilson won the batting title while flying on coke. Where is the justification?

With the drug scandal still fresh in every fan`s mind, major league baseball proved, in case anyone had doubts, how little it knows about public relations. In 1981, players called a strike in the heart of the season. Between June 12 and July 31st, no major league games were played.

Did you have tickets to take your kid and all his friends to see the Giants on the 4th of July? Tough luck; the multimillionaire players were too busy carping about free agent salaries to be concerned about your summer plans.

Then, in 1994, in an even more colossal blunder, players went on strike from August 12th through spring training. The World Series, which was even played during World War II, was cancelled.

Now, impossible to believe though it is, players might strike again. The particulars are too insane to even analyze. In a nutshell, the players want free market conditions; the owners claim that free markets are killing them.

Neither party has been so bold as to set a strike date. Players prefer August so that post-season revenues don`t flow into the owner`s coffers. And the owners would like to lock the players out after the World Series when all their money has been deposited.

Since I don`t watch major league baseball, I don`t care what the owners or players do. Now, when I`m gripped by nostalgia for baseball`s glory days, I take out my 3,000 page Baseball Encyclopedia and look up some of those great names: Mickey Mantle, Duke Snider, Bob Gibson, Warren Spahn and Robin Roberts.

I can see them all so clearly.

Joe Guzzardi [email him], an instructor in English at the Lodi Adult School, has been writing a weekly column since 1988. It currently appears in the Lodi News-Sentinel.