Nothing is more alien or confusing for baseball's fans, or, for that matter, its players, than the necessity of examining their feelings toward the game. Part of the sport's power comes from the fact that, since childhood, we've accepted it as being one of those few national institutions that is, unarguably, on the side of the angels.
Now, baseball, one of the spontaneous and relaxed corners of our culture, has been forced to turn temporarily introspective and moody. From the bleachers to the dugout to the owners' boxes, baseball has not quite been itself in its first week since the strike.
Baseball is something you play, not something about which you feel guilty.
Nothing is more indigenous to the game than talk -- the lifeblood of chatter, anecdote, humor and tale-telling that courses through every cranny of the game. This circulatory system of crude merriment and earthy energy hasn't dried up. But it's been a bad week for baseball's customary good cheer.
"I can't think of one funny line I've heard since we came back," said a front-office veteran of the Cincinnati Reds. "We haven't regained our sense of humor yet."
Part of this prickliness is due to the aftermath of the 50-day strike. Fans, instead of automatically revering players, now look at them with a willingness to make quick, harsh judgments. Slumping Davey Lopes, captain of Los Angeles, has been booed so unmercifully that he says, "I never dreamed I'd here this from Dodger fans."
Although baseball has, wisely, not released any official figures yet, it appears that the game will, indeed, be hurt at the box office, and, perhaps, more than expected. Through the first five days, and 59 games, of the new season, the average major league attendance was 18,497. That's 11.3 percent lower than the prestrike '81 average of 20,865. In particular, the AL average of 15,112 is pathetic.
In fairness, it should be mentioned that this is Monday-through-Friday attendance. Once a complete week, including the fat draws of Saturday and Sunday, is available, a better figure will exist.
Nonetheless, generally disappointing attendance has clouded the scene. That's not the only reason, however, for baseball's generally gray mood.
In less than a week, the integrity of the game itself has been questioned. Tony LaRussa, the manager of the Chicago White Sox, was quoted as saying he would order his team to lose a late-season game or four-game series to Oakland if it meant his team would get into the playoffs.
And, yesterday, on national television, prior to NBC's "Game of the Week," Whitey Herzog, the manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, said of course he would ask his team to lose if it meant getting into the playoffs. "My job," he said candidly, "is to get my team into the World Series."
It is reported that major league executives, owners, team administrators and players have discussed the possibility of revising the split-season plan that was hastily approved in Chicago two weeks ago.
Ask players what they'll remember from the first week back and you get an utterly uncharacteristic blank stare. The only other time players consistently react in this way is when they are coming off the disabled list after a long, serious injury. Then, they always seem aloof, totally self-immersed, worried and serious far beyond the normal demands of their game.
In a sense, this is the week that 650 players all came off the disabled list simultaneously.
Never have so many players been so worried about injury at the same time. An athlete's body is, of course, his livelihood, and when that body is in jeopardy, you've got a nervous, irritable ballplayer. Any big-leaguer who isn't anxious about whether or not he'll make it through the first two to three weeks of this second season in one piece isn't facing reality.
"I'm not in top shape," admitted Dennis Leonard, Kansas City's three-time 20-game-winner. "Like a lot of players, I thought the season was dead. I wasn't going to work out all summer just so I could sit out all winter. Now, I have to get ready in a hurry."
For the first time in history, baseball has accidentally combined late-spring-training conditioning and late-season, pennant-race pressure into one time frame.
"In the next fews days," said Baltimore Coach Ray Miller, "you'll see 'em start dropping like flies -- hamstrings poppin', sore elbows and shoulders. It's not the first few games that'll do it. It's when the fatigue starts to show with the day games after night games, doubleheaders and travel. Some careers will end in the next week or two and everybody knows it."
Compounding the sense of general anxiety is a new gold rush mentality created by the owners' split-season plan. At the very moment when players instinctively believe they should be taking it just a bit easy, they also know that they have an unparalleled chance to steal a spot in the playoffs.
More than half the teams in baseball know that, over a normal season, they would need a miracle to make the playoffs. You can't play for six months on adrenaline, team spirit and other intangibles. However, baseball history is chock full of examples of teams that have managed to play far over their heads for 50 games -- or 100 games, for that matter. Every season has its "surprise" Cinderella teams that raise a fuss into July or even August, then fold.
"In a 162-game season, every game is serious," said Texas shorstop Mario Mendoza. "But not as serious as these next 50 are going to be."
Of the game's 26 teams, perhaps 20 can, with justification, imagine a scenario in which they ride the hot streaks of a few key players into the new playoffs. And, then, in a pair of best-of-five series, who's to say who could end up in the World Series. Every player knows that, in a short series, even the Blue Jays can beat the Yankees.
In other words, baseball -- the most relaxed and, over the long haul, fairest -- of our professional games, has suddenly become the most frenetically unpredicable crap shoot that anybody could imagine.
"Nobody's ever seen nothin' like this," said Kansas City Manager Jim Frey. "The day the owners voted on the split season, Joe Burke (GM) came up to me at our workout and said, 'We're no longer 12 games behind.' Word went through the team real fast.
"When you can gain 12 games in the standings in one day," said Frey, "that's a pretty nice day."
As a paradigm of the unpredictability of the phony second season, consider the cases of Cecil Cooper of Milwaukee and George Brett of Kansas City, the two top hitters in the AL last year. Both had miserable first halves, by their standards.
Cooper, who worked out during the strike, began his second season by going 13 for 23 in five games against Cleveland with 22 total bases, raising his average from .270 to .300.
Brett, who took a complete vacation, came back with an incredible 0-for-15 slump against Baltimore, not counting an 0-for-3 in the All-Star Game. Then, no sooner had Brett gotten an infield hit than, in the same inning, a ground ball bruised his right thumb so badly that, now, he's expected to be sidelined for several more days.
Baltimore Manager Earl Weaver was so nervous about Brett, feeling certain he would explode with a 5-for-5 game before he left Baltimore, that the manager chewed out anybody who discussed Brett's collar. "Don't even mention that," Weaver would snap. "Talk about that when he's left town." Weaver couldn't have been any more superstitious if a no-hitter had been in progress.
Adding to the jitters in major-league clubhouses is the sudden arrival of an unprecedented number of just-up-from-AAA rookies who are in peak shape and know they will never have a better chance to steal a job.
The Royals' Darryl Motley, a 5-foot-9, 195-pound ball of muscle, has already laid claim to at least half of the starting right-field job with the AL champs. The Cleveland Indians have called up two bush-leaguers while giving multimillion-dollar free agent Ross Grimsley his unconditional release and sending '80 rookie-of-the-year Joe Charboneau, back to the minors.
Just glace through the box scores and see a score of new names like Ripken, Valdez, Gedman, Hayes, Bando (Chris), Wallach, Ojeida, Patterson, Wehrmeister and the euphonious Atlee Hammaker.
Curiously, this will also be the first season in history when rookies who broke in during April of '81 will have a chance to experience the "sophomore jinx" during their first year. Already, Tim Raines of Montreal, who stole 50 bases in 54 prestrike games, has gone 0 for 2 in thefts for the week and dropped 30 points in average since he's forgotten how to steal first base. As for the instant immortal, Fernando Valenzuela of the Dodgers, in his first eight starts he was 8-0 with a 0.50 ERA; in his last seven games, including a poststrike loss, he is 1-4 with a 6.22 ERA.
Baseball may have returned with a certain lethargy and lack of its usual century-old self-confidence. Nonetheless, the game cannot lose its central personality. Already the tidbits of lore are surfacing.
Bobby Bonds and Heity Cruz, in the all-tied 10th inning of the Chicago Cubs' first game under new (Chicago Tribune) ownership, gathered together under a routine Dave Kingman fly ball at Wrigley Field, then, suddenly, retreated from each other as the ball fell for a game-losing triple. What happened? "Somebody in the bleachers yelled, 'I got it,' " said Bonds. And, like true Cubbies, they let him have it.
White Sox reliever Lamarr Hoyt, in his first inning back, allowed four home runs. Catcher Carlton Fisk, asked if Hoyt had bad "stuff," said, "I don't know. I didn't catch that many of 'em . . . it was like a driving range out there."
Ancient Carl (Mr. Adjustment) Yastrzemki spent the strike performing the umpteenth major restructuring of his stance, swing and plate trendencies. His reincarnation is now complete; Yaz has gone from a dead fast-ball pull hitter back to his youthful style as an all-fields, wait-on-the-curve batter. How many times can this man emmerge from a subterranean batting cage with an utterly new plate personna and a salvaged career?
Edward Bennett Williams, the Baltimore owner and famous attorney, after learning that Ray Grebey's Player Relations Committee had hired a law firm to "investigate" the quotes of three renegade owners during the strike, exploded, saying, "I hope they charge me and try to fine me. I can't wait. They'll think they're in an eggbeater."
Texas rookie pitcher Dave Schmidt, earning $20,000 this season, was brought in to save a game by getting out New York's Dave Winfield, salary $1,500,000. Ranger Manager Don Zimmer waddled to the mound and spake thus to the rookie: "Kid, you're better than this SOB, so go get him."
"I don't know if I really believe that," said Zimmer after Winfield grounded out and Texas won, "but it seemed like the right thing to say at the time."
When this first week of baseball's return is remembered years from now, however, only one episode will be recalled. And it will be one that fits perfectly within the game's traditions and sense of itself: Pete Rose's 3,631st base hit.
What was important, of course, wasn't the fact that Rose got the hit that made him the all-time National League hit king. His single to left was just a matter of "when," not "if." What distinguished yet another Rose record was, as always, the manner of the man.
Of course, the first man to bat after the strike was Rose, and, in line with his dual sense of history and duty, he got a hit to open Sunday's All-Star Game. After that affair, Rose, his son and a friend decided to drive Rose's new Rolls Royce back from Cleveland to Philadelphia, rather than wait for delivery.
True to form, Rose hopped in the car, asked a Cleveland taxi driver, "How do you get to Philadelphia?" and took off. Somewhere near Erie, Pa., Rose took a wrong turn and got extremely lost. In all, it took the trio 10 hours to get to Phillie, with Rose doing half the driving.
Rose got to bed at 10:30 a.m., snoozed until 3 p.m., then headed to the ball park. Seven hours later, he had his hit. Who needs a good night's sleep? Not Rose.