Baseball, glorious baseball, is back. The Season of Destiny begins for the Chicago Cubs, whose defeat by the San Diego Padres in the fifth game of the National League Championship Series was as much an oddity as Ronald Reagan's loss to Walter Mondale in the Louisville debate later the same evening.
Reagan recovered to win impressively, and so will the Cubs. The end of the season will see them standing tall. But, meantime, you backers of other teams are entitled to dream your impossible dreams. That's the beauty of baseball, the most democratic of sports.
I have been thinking a lot about the political character of the national pastime, ever since I read an intriguing dispatch in the March 16 New York Times from Larry Rohter, its correspondent in Managua, Nicaragua, about baseball in that embattled country.
The United States brought baseball to Nicaragua, as we brought so many other blessings to benighted lands in our earlier imperialist era. The first team was created and underwritten in 1905 by the U.S. consul general, one Carter Donaldson. He had the odd inspiration to call it the Boer, in honor of the South Africans who had fought so well against Britain in the recently ended Boer War, and the Boer it remains.
The sport was nurtured by the example and coaching of the Marines, who occupied Nicaragua for almost 20 years. Nicaraguan ballplayers have become good enough that five of them have played in the majors in the last 10 years. (I can see the Baseball Trivia players getting ready to pounce.)
As a reminder of the imperialist past, baseball is a bit of an embarrassment to the Sandinistas now in power, Rohter wrote, but they have wisely decided to adapt the game to their revolutionary principles rather than try to eradicate what has become a very popular pastime.
They are renaming some teams and stadiums for heroes of the struggle against the Somoza government and are calling on the players to carry out political duties. Rifle-carrying batsmen marched with the workers in celebrating the fifth anniversary of the People's Militias, Rohter wrote, and the Boers' second baseman was quoted as saying at the ceremony, "The aggressions of North American imperialism are too much to bear. . . . Those people are interested in destruction and bloodshed, but we are not going to bend. . . ."
As a connoisseur of locker-room "quotes" that never got said, I have to tell you that Rafael Obando's lines are as phony as any synthetic first-person World Series column by a left-handed spitballer, ghostwritten at the end of the night by a hung-over sports writer.
It is true that I have seen even the great Al Kaline shill for Richard Nixon at a political rally, so the politicization of baseball talent is not unknown in our blessed republic. But I doubt that we can draw too many lessons from the Sandinistas' conception of the game. Rohter quoted Ottoniel Arguello, the president of the Nicaraguan Baseball Federation, as saying that the players should not "be used merely as the objects of investment and spectacle. We want a more humane system that takes into account the player's education, health and family and gives him a chance to develop himself as a person."
Knowing what we do about the off- the-field personalities of many notable ballplayers, I think that is a dubious proposition. Let them develop into managers and kick dirt on umpires. Better that than unleashing them on society. Eugene McCarthy and Vinegar Bend Mizell are the only professional baseball players I know who came to Congress, and I don't know that we need a lot more.
Some of the specific policies Arguello and the Sandinistas have put into effect are almost enough to make you root for the contras.
They have written a rule limiting the number of innings a pitcher may throw each week, ostensibly to preserve his arm and prolong his career. Talk about the heavy hand of government! I don't want any bureaucrat yanking Rick Sutcliffe because he has reached his quota. Dwight Gooden, maybe, but not Sutcliffe.
Another thing they have done is ban the import of American baseballs and started manufacturing their own. Rohter said that the ballplayers' gripes about the inferiority of the local product are being dismissed because "most of the complaints seem to have come from pitchers whose earned-run averages have risen and hitters whose batting averages have dropped."
All I can say is that if those Marxist statisticians have the ERAs rising while the BAs drop, it's no wonder their economy is screwed up.
But I don't want to appear to be entirely unsympathetic to the Sandinistas. One of Arguello's principles is sound. "We want to rid baseball of its commercial aspects," he said.
Right on, comrade. And the way to start is to keep those damn lights out of Wrigley Field.