Baseball is back

Posted: Oct 17, 2003 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- Bill ``Spaceman'' Lee was a pretty good pitcher for the Boston Red Sox in the 1970s. He is better known, however, for his Delphic pronouncements that earned him his nickname and sound like Yogi Berra on acid.

It was therefore fitting that with the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox fighting for pennants -- when Chicago last won the World Series, Mark Twain was still living; Boston last won 10 years later, Babe Ruth pitching -- the Spaceman should be asked for predictions. On National Public Radio, he took the long view:

Spaceman: ``Uranus is in an 84-year cycle, and the last time Uranus was in this position after a loop around the sun was in 1918'' -- the Sox's last World Series victory, beating (who else?) the Cubs -- ``so the moons are positioned that, you know, in -- they're suspending all weddings in India right now in the Hindu religion because of the proximity of Mars and the way things are going. You know, things are really agitated.''

NPR: ``What does this mean?''

Spaceman: ``What does that mean? It could be the end of the world. If the Cubs and the Red Sox get into (the World Series), there could be a giant, giant hurricane. ...''

I've heard less plausible theories about the end of the world.

I like Spaceman's perspective and I cite him approvingly because I think the craziness of the last week -- from the Yankees-Red Sox Game 3 brawl to the Cubs' cosmic Game 6 meltdown -- left many people addled.

Much of Chicago remains under suicide watch. And over in the American League, the mayor of New York suggested that he would have arrested Pedro Martinez for throwing 72-year-old Yankee coach Don Zimmer to the ground after Zim impetuously rushed him, or as Tom Boswell of the Washington Post put it, ``made a full-speed beeline -- at perhaps 1 mph.''

When the Boston police responded by threatening to arrest Yankee pitcher Jeff Nelson for his role in the later bullpen fight, you knew it was time for distance, for a bit of Spaceman-like equanimity.

The way I see it, a splendid time was had by all. Here is my argument: With war in Iraq, war in Afghanistan, and al Qaeda bent on blowing us up here at home, we should be grateful for the Fenway dustup. It was perfect comic relief: a bunch of grown-ups in pinstriped pajamas pretending to have a fight.

The bottom line here is that nobody was seriously hurt. Zimmer sported a Band-Aid on his nose the size of a bow-tie pasta.

Before we talk about the decline of civility, sportsmanship and decency itself, we need to put this in a bit of perspective. Ty Cobb once went 12 rows into the stands to attack a heckler. Juan Marichal swatted Dodger catcher Johnny Roseboro over the head with a bat. The infamous Yankees-Red Sox brawl of 1976 left the Spaceman himself so injured that he was never the same pitcher again.

These days Pedro Martinez plunks the Yankees' Karim Garcia (I love that name: the melting pot in two words) with a high hard one, and the umpire comes running out waving his arms, warning both sides that there will be no more retaliation. Well, in the old days when men were men, there were no dual warnings. Before 1975, the retaliation would go on until no one was left standing. The old Pacific Coast League once had a beanball fight -- an orgy, wrote the Los Angeles Daily News, ``of gouging, spiking and slugging'' -- that took 50 L.A. cops to break up.

Now that was a fight. This week's Fenway fracas was postmodern shadowboxing, which to my mind is the best of all possible worlds: You get your fight and nobody gets hurt.

Indeed, it has been the best of all possible baseball weeks. Could be the best we ever had. You got the Red Sox and the Cubs. You got the rhubarbs and the curses. You got a mayor ready to arrest Cy Young's successor. You got a fan (a Chicago fan, no less) reaching out to take a foul pop away from a Chicago outfielder -- and on this I shall brook no opposition -- costing the Cubs their first pennant since 1945.

This is craziness. This is karma. This is as good as it gets. Cubs fans may be crying, but America is once again in love with baseball. As a Los Angeles Times sports reporter wrote about that glorious Pacific Coast League brawl, ``Who says that ... baseball is dying?'' That was 1953.