As the games dwindle down to a precious few, we anticipate odes to baseball urging us to reflect on what a remarkable, implausible, kaleidescopic season it has been. How unexpected that long-dormant Pittsburgh and Cincinnati would emerge like butterflies, how invigorating that steadfast veterans Nolan Ryan and George Brett would renew their vows with destiny, how intriguing that Cecil Fielder would return from Japan refreshed, a Zen master of the power stroke. . . . (Excuse this interruption, but sometimes they don't allow me a lot of space out here, so let's cut to the chase) . . . Baseball, they'll say, baseball's so rich and full with infinite variety and surprise. Baseball renews us. Baseball excites us.
Not this year.
Baseball '90 was butter knife dull.
No fun, sometimes intentionally. Recently, baseball went out of its way to be Scrooge by refusing to let the White Sox give 67-year-old Minnie Minoso one last at-bat in Comiskey Park so he could play in six decades. What would have been the harm? Are they afraid spring training will be overrun by the AARP? Brett's winning a batting title, and he's what, 15 months younger than Minoso? Ryan's older. Integrity is getting Pete Rose off the bench, not locking Minnie Minoso out of history. Who's running baseball, Miss Hannigan?
Let's recap the 1990 season, starting with the lockout that threatened our pastoral game.
Finally, opening day arrives -- by now we're whistling in the wind, pretending everything is like it always was, the elegiac symmetry hasn't been altered -- and something very odd occurs before the season is three days old: a no-hitter. A combined no-hitter, because the managers aren't about to ruin their pitching staffs by letting any tender-armed starter throw a full nine.
Much more ju-ju.
This was the first of 237 no-hitters. Dave Stieb, who had died 1,000 deaths in the ninth, finally got one. Dave Stewart and Fernando Valenzuela each got one -- on the same night! The cluster of no-hitters underscored the general dearth of competition this season, and Andy Hawkins's ludicrous no-hitter, in which he not only lost the game, but lost huge, 4-1, rendered the achievement comical.
No individual landmark, not even Ryan's 300th victory, came close to the percussion of George Steinbrenner's divestiture; the self-inflated nag was sacked by Fay Vincent following disclosures of Steinbrenner's tawdry alliance with confirmed weasel Howard Spira. This is the story America cleaved to, not Ryan, not Brett winning batting titles in three decades, not Rickey Henderson -- first in on-base percentage, second in slugging -- having one of the most awesome years ever for a leadoff batter. But no, the showstopper is George Steinbrenner getting the heave-ho. That's baseball '90.
Some of the best stories are flawed: Fielder should become the first player since 1977 to hit 50 homers, only the second in 25 years. Two years ago Toronto gave up on him, sold him to a team in Japan. Isn't this special? First it's transistors, then automobiles, and now the ultimate insult, baseball. What American product will the Japanese improve on next, apple pie? Bob Welch has 26 victories already, but Oakland is so superior, 26 barely raises an eyebrow. Cal Ripken Jr. sets an all-time errorless record for shortstops, but all everybody seems to notice is that he's batting .250 -- brother Bill is outhitting him by 30 points for heaven's sake. The sorriest story of all is Willie McGee, who's going to win the NL batting title, and he was waived through the league. Bad enough that every NL club acquiesced to this conspiracy, but how do the White Sox explain not claiming him or Harold Baines to thwart Oakland? Being asleep at the switch cost White Sox GM Larry Himes his job. The McGee affair, a clear manipulation of the spirit of the rules by an old boy network, reflects poorly on baseball.
Where were the lovable teams? Last year's O's were so tantalizing, so much fun. This year's O's are a wan bunch. The White Sox? How can you take them seriously in the same division with the A's? Oakland is a great team, perhaps a dynasty, and, unfortunately, no longer fresh.
Pennant races, such as they are, developed late and lack character. Hardly thunder down the stretch. The Reds have spent September inert as the Dodgers lurch after them. The Pirates and the Mets are grovelling, both below .500 the last two weeks. The AL East is the most hopeless race of all: The Red Sox have collapsed in a heap, as every fatalist in New England knew they would, but the Blue Jays were choke central in the late '80s, so where are they going?
This was a season of great anticipation, for baseball was coming in bushels to America through ESPN. But ratings are far below anticipated levels. America hasn't responded to a national schedule of different teams every night (though it seems to me that every time I tune in a game I get the Mariners; I feel sure I'm going to be billed for a partial-plan season ticket, and frankly, if this is ESPN's idea of a joke, I'm not amused). Baseball's attendance is up, but its national TV viewing is down. Unlike football, baseball interest is local. The NFL, with only 16 games and ritualized viewing habits, sustains interest in its national TV games. Baseball doesn't. Not even vaporizing Norm "Get A Life" Hitzges would change that. It would help, sure, but it wouldn't change it.
With the NBA playoffs running well into June, and football beginning in September, baseball's position on the sports calendar has become cramped. It needs more than good will and Joe Garagiola to keep away the wolves. A 162-game season is the stuff of romance and literature, but when your team is out of it early, as our Baltimores were, 162 is an eternity.