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Will George

The Old Ballgame Still Has Its Grip

By George F. Will
Monday, April 4, 2005; Page A21

Opening Day quiz:

(a) Name the only player to get at least 500 hits with four teams.

(b) The first time a Brewer swung a bat in the game with the Rockies last June 29, the result was a sacrifice fly. How?

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(c) In a 1965 game in Yankee Stadium, with the score tied, two outs in the bottom of the ninth, a runner on first and a 3-1 count on the batter, Yankee manager Johnny Keane ordered the batter to take the pitch -- even though the pitcher was sure to throw a strike rather than walk the potential winning run into scoring position at second. Why did Keane do that?

(Answers below)

The rule of thumb is that every team -- we are talking baseball today, so if you really want to read about other stuff, look elsewhere on this page -- will win 60 of its 162 games, will lose 60 and will play the season to settle the other 42. But the 2004 Arizona Diamondbacks did not get the memo explaining this.

They were epochally awful, losing 111 of 162 games. Yet Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci notes that Diamondbacks attendance -- 2.5 million -- was larger than the attendance of each of the Yankee teams that won 21 world championships between 1923 and 1977.

Major League Baseball's 2004 attendance was a record 73,022,969. Per-game attendance was 30,075, higher than 14,106 in 1950, 16,110 in 1960, 14,788 in 1970, 20,434 in 1980 and 26,045 in 1990. All this indicates that the fans have not received the memo explaining that the game is going to hell in a handcart.

Well, you ask, what about steroids? According to ESPN, 20 years ago five National Football League players weighed more than 300 pounds. The number of 300-pounders on teams' current rosters? 433. Could chemistry as well as cheeseburgers be involved? Baseball is held to higher standards than other sports and receives more intense and often unjust criticism, as it has regarding its supposed "inaction" on steroids. Testing for steroids began in the major leagues in 2003, and 98.3 percent of players passed their tests in 2004. This is news to Congress, but then what isn't?

Baseball's competitive balance is much improved and compares favorably with that of the NFL and the National Basketball Association. Three of the last four Super Bowls were won by one team, the New England Patriots, but the last five World Series have been won by five different teams. The National League has sent seven different teams to the last seven World Series. The worst winning percentage in baseball last year (the Diamondbacks' .315) was not as embarrassing as those (as of Sunday morning) of the NBA's Atlanta Hawks (.153), Charlotte Bobcats (.208), New Orleans Hornets (.236) and the Utah Jazz (.306).

In the 10 seasons since baseball included two wild-card teams in its postseason, 22 of baseball's 30 teams have played into October. And, as Verducci says, the three most storied franchises -- the Yankees, Red Sox and Cubs -- have each won at least 88 games in two consecutive seasons for the first time ever.

Baseball also is thriving because it is a bargain (average MLB ticket, $19.82; average NBA ticket, $44.68; average NFL ticket, $54.75) and because of the flood of Spanish-speaking talent. The U.S. population (296 million) is more than 33 times that of the Dominican Republic (8.8 million), but bet on this all-Dominican lineup against the rest of the world:

C Miguel Olivo, Mariners

1B Albert Pujols, Cardinals

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