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Mike Wise

If They Don't Win It's Not a Shame

By Mike Wise
Saturday, April 2, 2005; Page D08

"America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It's been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good and that could be again."

-- James Earl Jones as Terrence Mann in "Field of Dreams"

In case the heraldic trumpets went unheard, baseball is coming back to the nation's capital tomorrow when the Nationals play an exhibition game at RFK Stadium against the New York Mets. This is the biggest news in Washington since the inauguration. If Cher were cloned and we declared war on Guam, it would be under the story about Tony Armas Jr.'s groin pull.

Listening to the radio spots playing the movie clips, hearing the chatter, you would think Kevin Costner and Robert Redford -- mighty bats in hand -- are about to get off the Metro at Foggy Bottom. The city will be complete for the first time in 34 years. There will only be tranquility, the smell of the grass and the new-millennium nuances and subtleties of the grand, old game:

Congressional subpoenas. The clear. Arbitration. The Angelos Network. The cream. Sidney Ponson.

(Wait. Peter Angelos owns 90 percent of the Nationals' regional TV rights? Gee, does he get to pick the announcers, too? "Hello again everybody I'm Chris Berman and alongside me, my partner, Boog Powell." Angelos took baseball like Kenneth Lay took Enron. Who knew Bud Selig had so much guilt for ruining a friend's monopoly?)

Look, it's a nice, uplifting story, baseball coming back to the District. But acquiring Nationals' fever would be much easier if some of us stopped treating the game's return like a military food drop: "Baseball is back. Yay! We can all eat."

Among the powerful 18- to 34-year-old male demographic, football long ago usurped baseball as the National Pastime. Outside of Barry, Sammy, A-Rod and Jeter -- and maybe a few scruffy Red Sox players -- children can't even name the game's stars. There are no Willie Mayses, pictured in grainy newsreel footage playing stickball on the streets with youngsters on his way to a game. You might be able to glimpse Rafael Palmeiro -- if you hike to Capitol Hill.

Part of the game's lost allure has to do with a jolting cultural shift. Steroids aside, baseball's time-honored tradition of not showing up an opponent has become so . . . '50s. In the NBA, you must break down an opponent before dunking maliciously on him and then giving him the death stare. In the NFL, you must simulate a car accident in pads and helmet and then woof about the sanctioned violence. To fail at either task makes the elite athlete unmarketable today. Show-and-tell sells, humility hurts.

(Not to mention all those office colleagues preparing for their "drafts." Do you have rotisserie friends who claim to love the game? Are they less concerned about their beloved Phillies winning the pennant than they are about a Brewers middle reliever recording a rotisserie "hold" for them? That's not love. That's co-dependency.)

Moreover, in a society trained to scan television crawl lines, baseball is simply too slow and non-encompassing to attract a younger audience. Only two players at the same time -- the pitcher and the hitter -- are truly interactive. Everybody else is scratching, spitting or awaiting the clubhouse spread. You think David Wells became that svelte working out between innings? Baseball rewards stubby guys. Basketball and football cut them. Hockey cannot afford to pay them.

Some good-minded people may internalize this as disrespectful to some of the great ruminations on the game by colleagues. Not at all. George Will should not be faulted for writing more about baseball than Jack London wrote about his dog.

It's not that the father-and-son generational connect does not exist in baseball. Like Redford in "The Natural," "Field of Dreams" was a moving, well-done fantasy. There is nothing wrong with any corny baseball movie that takes you back to age 12 (except "The Bad News Bears Go to Japan"). The problem with partaking of the binding history and tradition of the game -- getting swept up by Nationals' fever -- is that it is bound to disappoint you. Because the myth of baseball is about as legitimate as the myth of the nuclear family in America. It's maybe 50 percent true.

In this age of juiced sluggers, returning to the ballpark is like returning home to a dysfunctional Thanksgiving. Everyone sits around reminiscing, creating their own reality. The inebriated, swaying uncle and the kleptomaniac niece are never confronted because that would ruin the holiday, ruin the memory.

So, like family, we come back annually to the game as revisionist historians, believing if that ball sails far over the wall, this time -- really this time -- the timing and power and the swing were all man-made.

We keep believing, because to do otherwise would be to confront the truth:

Barry Bonds's teammates cannot stand him, beer and Crackerjacks are overpriced and the Nationals used to be the God-awful Expos.

Who wants to make a sappy movie about that?

© 2005 The Washington Post Company