Politicians strike out

Posted: May 20, 2007 12:00 AM
Politicians strike out

Baseball was once America's game. Now football and basketball have muscled in, offering a faster pace that better fits our television age.

I love sports, all of the above and more, but there is something special about going to the ballpark to watch a baseball game. It remains one of life's greatest pleasures. The pop of the catcher's mitt: strike one. The crack of the bat. Relaxing on a sunny day or a warm evening with a hot dog in hand, watching and talking with friends or family.

At a baseball game, there's actually time for conversations. That alone makes it a voyage back in time.

Freedom used to be America's game, too. But these days, not really so much anymore. Today the more popular game is nannyism: A government of experts and do-gooders always telling us what to do.

For instance, how long do you really think we're going to be allowed to eat hot dogs? They'll come for the Cracker Jacks, too.

Which brings us back to baseball, and to New York, baseball's most storied real estate. This is the city that boasted the Babe, punched the clock with baseball's Iron Man, streaked with DiMaggio, did goodness knows what (in addition to winning) with Mantle, dubbed Reggie Jackson "Mr. October" and has enjoyed no fewer than two World Series championships in every decade since the 1920s. And that's just the Yankees.

Once upon a time the city also hosted the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers. Back on August 11, 1951, the Dodgers had a 13 and a half game lead on the Giants, with only 44 games left. But the Giants won 37 of their last 44 games to end the season tied with the Dodgers for first in the National League.

In the bottom of the ninth inning of the third game of a three-game playoff series to decide the pennant, the Giants trailed 4 to 1. After scoring one run in the inning, the Giants had two runners on base and one out when Bobby Thomson came to the plate. The rest is history: baseball's "shot heard 'round the world." Thomson hit an 0-1 pitch into the leftfield seats, his walk-off three-run homer punctuating perhaps the greatest comeback in the history of sport with an exclamation point. I wasn't even born yet, but I'll never forget hearing replays of announcer Russ Hodges repeatedly screaming, "The Giants win the pennant!" Sure, you can view it today on YouTube, but the famous call was on radio.

The Giants went on to lose the World Series . . . to those damn Yankees!

But I digress. You see, here in the present, I just don't picture baseball when I think of the Big Apple. Instead, I recall that New York recently became the first jerky jurisdiction in the country to ban trans fat in restaurants. Now the city council has gone a step further, trying to stretch a single offense of paternalism into a double. This time the politicians are banning the use of metal bats in high school baseball, for private and parochial schools as well as public ones.

Now, I don't like metal bats. The sound of a ball hitting a wooden bat echoes the transcendent beauty of a Stradivarius. The clangy ping of an aluminum bat possesses all the glamour of a grocery cart dinging your car.

Which is probably why the pros use wooden bats exclusively.

But bats made of aluminum or metal composite last longer. They never shatter as wooden bats do, splintering apart in your hands. Metal bats are designed to weigh more, but, because the weight is better balanced to swing easier, the bats offer hitters both more control and more power. This is disputed, of course, like everything else in baseball and in America, but for college, high school and Little League play metal has replaced wood as the norm.

If Americans who love baseball can't agree — league by league — to use the older instrument of the sport, then let freedom ring. With the sound of a "ping."

If I got over the designated hitter rule, I can survive this. Furthermore, I would never dream of forcing my preference on others.

But, then again, I'm not on the New York city council.

The folks on the council who voted for this new ban say it ain't the ping they oppose. They say the metal bats are too dangerous. Yet they presented nothing more than a few anecdotes, several terrible freakish tragedies, which might well have occurred had the bat been made of wood. (I wonder if they said a prayer for Owen Meany?) There are no studies to show more injuries from use of aluminum bats . . . which are not new, having been around since the 1970s.

In fact, a 2002 study by the National Consumer Product Safety Commission reported "no evidence to suggest that aluminum bats pose any greater risk than wood bats," and a 2005 study by American Legion Baseball also found the safety issue between metal and wooden bats to lack scientific support.

After hearing from numerous ballplayers and experts, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, to his credit, vetoed the bat ban. "I don't know whether aluminum bats are more dangerous or less dangerous," said the mayor. "But I don't think it's the city's business to regulate that."

Yet in its infinite wisdom, councilors overrode the mayor's veto with a whopping 41 to 4 vote. City Councilman Lewis Fidler, a co-sponsor of the measure, argued that city officials "are responsible for the health and safety of these kids," adding "If not us, then who?"

Once upon a time, the "who" would have been parents, coaches and youth league officials. They had the undisputed freedom (and responsibility) to decide such issues for themselves. After all, they all really do want the kids to survive each game. And no one is forced to use a certain bat or play the game against their will.

Once, too, the idea that politicians would dictate such a decision was, well, as foreign as soccer. (Which I also like.)

It'd be nice to find a time machine to take us back, long before Bobby Thomson's 1951 homer, to an even more important "shot heard 'round the world." It was the shot that sparked the American Revolution, the greatest comeback win for freedom in our history.

Baseball and America and freedom go so very nicely together. So, when politicians face these pitches to legislate in areas that are none of government's business, is it any wonder that they strike out?