This is the summer during which I discovered that there is indeed something more boring than baseball. That something is the baseball strike.
Baseball, as the man said, is 18 minutes of action crammed into three hours. It is, as it always has been, the great American sport . . . for the narcoleptic. Doze off, wake up and you will have missed absolutely nothing. This is why is is so popular on long, hot, beer-sodden summer afternoons.
The baseball strike, however, is 10 minutes of negotiations crammed into nearly six weeks. During this time even more has been written about even less.
We have witnessed the spectacle of a bunch of men, paid an average salary of more than $100,000, waving about their union cards as if they were going into the coal mines. I fully expect them to break into a rousing chorus of "Solidarity Forever." All they are missing is Pete Seeger for background music.
The only thing I have learned during the strike is that Mark Belanger and the other boys of summer actually look better in those ugly long underwear uniforms. If it was hard to recognize a baseball player without a score card, it was impossible to recognize one without wads of chewing tobacco distending his cheeks.
The basic pace of baseball, after all, has been hit one, spit two. There is nary a major-league player alive who does not chew, suck or spit out something during the course of an inning. I can only imagine the selection of chewing tobacco, snuff and sunflower seeds littering the negotiating room.
I was one of those people who had great hopes for the baseball strike. I looked forward to summer without hearing Howard Cosell tell me what intimacies were exchanged with him exclusively over the breakfast table by what baseball player.
I was ready for a season without Billyball. I thought Joe Garagiola might go to Berlitz, where he would be taught a phrase or two to replace, "that was some kind of play, some kind of ball-player, some kind of hitter, some kind of batter."
If the strike went on long enough, I figured we might even be spared the sight of players turning hucksters in the fall the way leaves turn red. With the fickleness of fans, nobody would care what kielbasa Yaz ate, whether Mike Schmidt drank his Seven-Up or Down, whether the Ross smelled like a man.
In short, I thought the strike might break the boredom if not the ball players.
What can I say but simply this: I was wrong.
Instead of the tedium of baseball, we have had the tedium of the baseball strike. Hundreds of reporters who normally relay the pearls from the mouths of Babes, Ruth and otherwise, now replay the pearls from the mouths of lawyers.
The same folk who cover every hemorrhoid attack of George Brett's and vintage wine of Steve Carlton covered every twitch of Labor Secretary Raymond Donovan.
For want of a major-league game, they descended on a 33-inning minor league ball game in Pawtucket, R.I. For want of a Dave Kingman, they turned on a John McEnroe.
Finally, the broadcast people, who abhor a vacuum more than nature itself, managed, through imagination and effort, to replace baseball with even more breathtakingly boring events. One station went into full-color coverage of All-Star Stratomatic Baseball. The board game, played with dice, came complete with commentators. Another cable station, in an effort for international snoozing, offered us Japanese baseball. And the networks showed enough trash sports to make me wonder if we would soon witness potato sack finals in A Battle of the Stars.
The most obvious summer replacement was, of course, golf. Golf is so well-known a soporific that even the commentators must whisper lest they wake up the fans.
But the real, uh, sleeper of the strike season came from the sudden and stunning coverage of the Tour de France, a sport played only by men who are willing to shave their legs. Imagine, if you will, replacing nine innings of balls and strikes with 23 days of bicycle riding. See the wheel go round and round.
It is the Tour de France that has finally made me utter the most shocking wish of my baseball-phobic career: "For Gawdsakes, Play Ball!"