TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALL GAME A DOSE OF SPRING TRAINING FEVER CHANGES THE AUTHOR'S TUNE ABOUT THE NATIONAL PASTIME

March 31, 1997

I hated baseball so much as a kid that I would occasionally hide
my glove in the trash to get out of Little League practice.
Football, hockey, wrestling--I played them nonstop, sometimes
changing equipment in the car as I went from practice to
practice. I just never fell for the game that my father, an
outfielder who had tryouts with the Cleveland Indians and the
Detroit Tigers after college, loved so dearly. Baseball was too
slow for me, too boring. When I was growing up in Grosse Pointe,
Mich., Tigers broadcasts used to put me to sleep faster than
cough syrup. And I guess it didn't help that when I did play the
game, I stank.

So the glove would get tossed under the couch or into the
hamper, leaving my poor dad befuddled. "How does someone lose
his glove four times in one season?" he once asked as he drove
me to practice in our faux-wood-paneled Ford wagon. "This is it,
Bear. I'm going to get your mother to take you to see a doctor."
She never did, and I carried my enmity for the national pastime
into adulthood.

A few years back, as a reporter covering a sports memorabilia
show, I tried to ask Reggie Jackson--you know, one of the great
ambassadors of the game--a few questions about the IRS
investigation into athletes who weren't reporting income from
card-show appearances. He waved for me to sit next to him and
then whispered this sewage in my ear, all with a big smile on
his face because there were fans waiting nearby to pay $50 for
his autograph: "You f------ little nobody piece of s---. I'm
Reggie f------ Jackson. How dare you? Do you know what I think
when a nobody reporter like you crawls out of some hole and asks
me a question like that? I think, f--- you, you f------ little
piece of crap. Now get the f--- out of my sight." He then turned
to the crowd, shook my hand and said loud enough for everyone to
hear, "Hope that helps! Thanks for coming by!"

When baseball tried to kill itself three years ago with a strike
and the cancellation of the World Series, I quietly rejoiced. I
could do without a bunch of overpaid, ill-mannered,
self-absorbed jerks subjecting me to what can be the most
stultifying sport this side of curling. That was still my
attitude a few weeks ago when an editor asked me to head to
Florida for spring training. "Honey," I alerted my wife, "I
think I'm finally being punished for drinking all that free soda
at work."

My first stop was the New York Mets' camp in Port St. Lucie,
where John Olerud spent two days apologizing for being 10
minutes late for an interview. "How is he going to fit in in New
York?" I asked a friend as Olerud kept his parents waiting a
half hour while he signed autographs after an exhibition game.
Also while at St. Lucie County Stadium, I came closer to doing
the macarena, thanks to Uncle Johnny the dancing usher, than I'd
like to admit.

My next stop was Baseball City, spring home of the Kansas City
Royals, where you can get a seat behind the dugout, a corn dog
and a lemonade for a grand total of $12. Before a Royals
exhibition game, future Hall of Famer George Brett explained to
me how hitting a ball was like punching someone's lights out in
a barroom brawl. He demonstrated by pretending to slug me on the
chin. Then, to show him I understood the concept of how momentum
relates to power, I threw a roundhouse at him. "That's it!" he
exclaimed, patting me on the back.

Moving on to Kissimmee, where the Houston Astros train, I soaked
in the sun and chewed on sunflower seeds as I took in the sights
and sounds of batting practice. Maybe I'm just getting old, but
for the first time the pace of this game and its subtle nuances
appealed to me. I chatted with new Houston skipper Larry
Dierker, a former big league pitcher who was hired out of the TV
booth to manage the Astros. Dierker listens to Jimmy Buffet and
chats baseball strategy with fans over the Internet, and one of
his main objectives as a manager has been to stress the fun of
the game to his players. "What's the worst thing that can happen
with all this?" Dierker asked. "I might get fired, right? Big
deal."

In Melbourne the Florida Marlins' new skipper, Jim Leyland,
propped his feet on a desk and answered questions while munching
on chicken. When he wasn't updating the media on the house
training of his new puppy, he was talking about fixing baseball.
"Take a guy like Kirby Puckett and let him play on each team in
the league for a week at a time. That'll fix it," he said. "And
get rid of all this loud music and the giant video screens with
highlights screaming at people. We should just strip the game to
its core and let people fall in love with it all over again."

Or, maybe, for the first time. Now, if I could find my glove.

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: EVANGELOS VIGLIS [Drawing of reporter looking at radiating baseball glove in sky]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)