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Baseball -- or Is It Vaudeville? -- Will Soon Regain Center Stage

By Thomas Boswell
Friday, January 27, 2006

For more than five weeks, the days have been getting longer. The sun may actually wake you up again. Next week brings Groundhog Day. After that, the Super Bowl arrives, ending the NFL season. Of course you know what all these dates and signs foretell. Pitchers and catchers, including a team from Washington (again), report to spring training in three weeks.

The worst of winter may still be in store for us, but at least the promise of baseball, and spring, is on the horizon. That means we can start to smile again. The silly grins of summer will return. Just the thought of baseball, even out of season, tickles us in a way we've missed for the past three months. Baseball has always been built on humor and human narrative, stories and soap operas, as much as on any athletic deeds. The game's tale-telling, lie-swapping and backroom intrigue bring us back for the kind of foolishness that other professional games avoid. Not serious enough.

Baseball knows better. Forget the jet flyovers and Roman numerals. Instead, give us new Orioles pitcher Kris Benson, who was traded by the Mets (for peanuts) because his wife got too hot for the Big Apple to handle. New York had little trouble swallowing Anna Benson, ex-stripper and "aspiring actress," when she said she'd sleep with the whole Mets team, including the batboys, if she ever caught her hubby cheating. Offending the PTA never got anyone shipped from Broadway to Crab City. But what about PETA? The Orioles were suddenly in line for a new member of the rotation when Anna posted on the Web that "I don't like to be cold and nothing keeps me warmer than dead animals. I have a whole zoo in my closet."

See what we've been missing? Aren't you ready for catchers, pitchers (and wives) to report? As Anna told the New Yorker, "It's time to get back to traditional values." So what if the Orioles had a few PR problems last year? Raffy and Sammy won't be back. Miggy hasn't asked to be traded -- at least not this week. Now, by replacing Sidney Ponson with Benson, look how they've gone and classed up the organization.

Meantime, up in Boston, the Red Sox are proving how hard it is to forget 86 years of dysfunctional behavior. Even a world title apparently can't cure it. What's up with Theo Epstein? Last Halloween the young GM snuck out of Fenway Park in a gorilla suit so nobody could ask him about his feud with team president Larry Lucchino. Then, he quit the Red Sox for 85 days. Now, St. Theo, halo askew, is back in his old job. Everybody's hugged and pretends nothing happened. Headline: "Tantrum's Over." But when Theo looks at his team, he'll see Adam Stern and Alex Cora, not Johnny Damon and Edgar Renteria. What Curse?

After nearly three months of (psycho) analysis, New England has come to the conclusion that Epstein's feelings were hurt because of excessively public contract negotiations with Larry the Leak. "It was a time of personal conflict," Epstein said of his relationship with Lucchino. "We had discord." Yeah, we also had big egos, big brains, different generations and some Princeton (Lucchino) vs. Yale (Epstein) thrown into the mix, too. Only the Red Sox could blow up their franchise for a whole winter because two adults with 1,500 SAT scores let a disagreement about a Larry Bigbie trade become the last straw.

On Wednesday, Epstein explained how deeply it had hurt him and his family to hear himself described in unflattering terms for months. "To be called 'duplicitous,' " Epstein lamented. "But that's part of the job."

Who'd have imagined: a sensitive baseball executive. It is the Red Sox's misfortune to have perhaps the only GM in baseball history who comes from a family where the dog can use "duplicitous" in a sentence. (And the cat can spell it.) "October 31 was an imperfect but necessary catalyst to get us to this" reconciliation, Epstein explained, referring to the day of his exodus as if it were as instantly recognizable as 9/11.

To prevent future front-office hissy fits, the Red Sox have decided to make the length of Epstein's new contract a state secret. Maybe his new deal runs out next Thursday. Maybe he's signed for life. That nasty Boston media can't stir up trouble if it doesn't know when those next touchy contract negotiations roll around, right? Don't bet on it.

The baseball mood comes back quickly, doesn't it? To debate Theo vs. Larry or Mrs. Benson vs. Paris Hilton, you don't even need a hot night and a cold beer, though you can imagine it already.

Why, before long, you'll turn to a friend in RFK and say, "Can you believe that before spring training this team didn't even have a stadium lease? Now, they've broken ground on a new park and the new owner just gave Alfonso Soriano a multiyear, $50 million deal. Isn't it amazing how much a man with a new contract warms up to the idea of playing center field?"

These are the days, with no games on the field or any major trades or signings, when baseball provides some of its best off-field comedy and drama. Or both. For example, just wait until you see all the fancy footwork between now and Opening Day as both baseball and the District try to compromise -- without losing face -- on a new Southeast ballpark.

The outlines of a solution are already taking shape with the District being insulated against any cost overruns while the city relinquishes "design and build" control over the project to those who well know how to build a ballpark on time and on budget. However, before the deal finally gets done, we're sure to get loads of new wheeler-dealer lore. Think of all this as bonus baseball entertainment, not civic aggravation. Otherwise, like New Englanders meditating on the Return of Theo, it'll drive you nuts.

After all, where but in a confrontation between the District government and baseball bosses could the dreams of baseball fans -- delayed for 33 years -- be derailed at Christmas time by the backroom interference of an ex-mayor who, the very next week, tested positive (again) for cocaine?

Who needs situation comedy? We've got baseball.

And it's still just January.

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