On the last day of baseball's worst regular season, let us examine why our sense of damage, almost a sense of remorse, is so sharp.
Each day we swallow, digest and expel in our wake many of the world's dark problems that probably ought to upset our systems far more than a tiny matter like a baseball season that took a wrong turn, then got completely lost.
Why then do so many supposed adults speak with more bitterness about the men who injured baseball than they do about the villains of the front page?
Why, for a game of supposedly vast importance, was County Stadium in Milwaukee much more than half empty on Friday night?
Why did the first pennant-race game in Minnesota in a dozen seasons draw fewer than 4,000 fans this week?
Why did 10,000 people with tickets in hand stay away from a Yankee game in Baltimore's Memorial Stadium on Friday?
Why does Earl Weaver say, "I don't think anybody cares about this season anymore."?
Why does Detroit Manager Sparky Anderson say, "Even if we (Tigers) go to the World Series, the whole thing feels phony. It's all been mishandled."?
Above all, how is it possible that the bizarre conviction now exists among the game's brass that the sport has barely been scratched?
"Attendance is only down 6 percent in the second half," a spokesman for Commissioner Bowie Kuhn now claims. "In the last month, we've rebounded well. For all of September, attendance was actually up over '80. We think the split season and expanded playoffs have helped increase interest. All in all, the damage from the strike is less than anybody thought."
Attendance statistics can be twisted until they have more knots than the devil's tail. What can't be escaped is the game-wide sense that baseball now has, in reality, the sort of malaise that a former president once thought he saw afoot in the whole land.
The most basic reason for baseball's lost season, we would argue, is that the game doesn't understand what it is. And, when you don't know what you are, it's very hard to know how to act.
That's why baseball has gone so pathetically and comically astray.
Basically, those who own and run the game think that is simply another American business -- a sort of Consolidated Runs, Hits and Errors Inc. that they can administer as though it were a chain of department stores with 26 branches in 24 cities.
Its place in our society -- its function as a refuge from the world that flourishes in the midst of the world -- never has been comprehended.
The baseball community can't fathom why boxing, for instance, is invigorated by talk of multimilliondollar purses, while baseball only damages itself when its economics become a primary subject of discussion.
"What's the difference?" baseball wonders, scratching its head.
Baseball can't grasp why the public yawns when confronted with the pretentious wealth of NFL franchises, but is intolerant when baseball's owners and players flaunt their wealth and fight over their riches.
"Aren't football and baseball the same?" baseball asks iteself.
This brings us to the core of the question. Each of our major sports has a fundamentally different source of appeal, speaks to a different part of our natures. When a professional sport doesn't know what it's selling, doesn't know which subliminal buttons it is pushing in the psyches of its followers, then it's up a creek.
Baseball's central, unmentioned claim may be that, among our sports, it is the one that puts us most in touch with a fleeting sense of natural order. Of course, this illusion of serenity is just a temporary refuge from cares. Like a weekend at the beach, baseball doesn't pretend to be reality, just a restorative.
However, when baseball has too much truck with that world of every day, when greedy owners or rich players remind us of the same tacky problems we face all the time, then baseball loses one of its basic, subliminal attractions.
Among games, football and baseball are our war and peace.
They don't appeal to different people so much as they appeal to different parts of the same person. That's why baseball runs a far greater risk of damage when it tangles itself with strikes, labor wars, money headlines and a mood of commerce.
At ab NFL game, we expect violence, danger, floor-show cheerleaders, loud bands, and bacchanal. We expect confrontation, a chip on the shoulder.
And if, next year, the NFL has its labor war, fans of pro football won't be nearly as annoyed with their game as baseball fans were with theirs.
Why? Because a labor "war" is entirely consonant with a sport that really is a minor infantry bottle. A grunting test of wills and tolerance for pain -- whether physical or financial -- is in tune with football.
All sports are contaminated by their contact with business. But few so much as baseball. "Sports and business go together like oysters and chocolate sauce," wrote Joseph Epstein, editor of the American Scholar, recently. "That is to say, not very palatably."
When the world is too much with us, we have, for generations, had the cool geometry, the orderly grace, and the sweet grass of the ballpark to restore us. But not his season. Every time we look at the split-season standings, the nonsense of a miniplayoff, the decimated statistics of an asterisk season, we are reminded of baseball's ugliest episode.
If we seem to gag on our oysters and chocolate sauce, it is with good reason.