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Baseball's decline is traced to youngsters

Published April 6, 2003

It was my first sporting love. In the long ago, with boyhood buds, there were daily pickup games at dusty, cramped Liberty Park on Jacksonville's threadbare north side.

Near dusk and dinner, as kids began to scat, when parents came hunting, we often got down to 2-on-2 baseball in the summer gloaming.

Sweet sandlot. Adorable competition.

Fast forward to now. Drive around your community. That means Tampa Bay or Detroit or Philly or Oakland. Too rarely, you see Little Leaguers or school teams on diamonds of clay. All but never do we find the old-style joys of pickup baseball.

For generations, it was unquestionably America's Pass-time, but now I'm scared that baseball might be our Past-time. Football long since blew past, becoming a dominant No. 1. Look around as you cruise; basketball is the biggest playground sport.

In the major leagues, baseball has never seen such talent; hitters with unprecedented muscle and dozens of pitchers with 90-mph pop. Many have multimillion-dollar salaries. Do they understand, or deeply care, that their game is splintering?

Pains me to say.

What's the answer? Ask a thousand old hardballers and you get at least 500 sets of reasons. Major-league salaries are far too high, but that is not baseball's sorest spot.

It's our youth that is deciding; more con than pro. Baseball has lost too many of our children. Not enough are as magnetized by Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Pedro Martinez and Derek Jeter, the way we were in the '60s or '70s by Sandy Koufax, Hank Aaron, Roberto Clemente, Mickey Mantle and Pete Rose.

Part of any sport's invigorating charms is watching gifted athletes regularly accomplish what was so difficult for those of us not so athletically blessed.

Through the generations, we'd view Willie Mays doing stuff in centerfield that, compared to our kiddie stabs, suggested talents from a another planet. Or maybe it was Johnny Bench's command behind the plate or Brooks Robinson's acrobatics at third base.

How could Bob Gibson throw 98 mph when, in my youth, a pitch approaching 80 seemed a nearly unhittable speed? Appreciating such incredible skills was vital in drawing us to watch big-league games, to be awed.

That has so diminished.

Baseball has no worse news.

A few more startling, invigorating wins like the Devil Rays accomplished in the opener against Boston would do loads in recapturing a nice chunk of the youth the game has been losing.

BEANBALLS: Fred McGriff looks 10 years younger, due to shaving a mustache, making me think his zeal at 39 with the Dodgers is apt to get Crime Dog up to 500 homers and into the Hall of Fame. . . . Wishing he'd gone gracefully into wealthy post-Cowboys retirement, my nose wrinkles at seeing Emmitt Smith cast with the Arizona Cardinals where he could take such a beating with a franchise that belongs in Death Valley . ... Marvin Lewis, the defensive coaching whiz now in charge of the Bengals, isn't sold on spending the No. 1 overall pick on Carson Palmer, the Heisman Trophy quarterback from USC.

MARTHA, NOT STEWART: She's right, that Augusta National Club should have female members, but it's not the law, so wouldn't Martha Burk and her organization be doing far more good by using energies to protest unequal pay, glass ceilings, sexual abuses, deadbeat dads and other injustices that, if corrected at all, will benefit far more women far more widely than having a couple of rich women wearing green jackets?

STEAMING MESSAGE: E-mail from Molly Curtan agrees with me and then some, saying "College basketball has too many schools that permit too many athletes, most notably men's basketball players, to be academic goof-ups who not only don't come close to graduating but who after three or four years cannot speak a solid English sentence.

"Many will finish their collegiate experience not knowing how to do anything more impressive than flip burgers, wash cars or collect garbage. David Robinson, as you noted, is a towering rarity.

"Educators can darn well use the time, money and class space to work on minds that have a desire and a propensity for intellect even if they cannot dunk."

Whatever happened to Dave Hill?

[Last modified April 6, 2003, 01:16:49]

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