Baseball likes euphemism. And so the game is again enduring "labor difficulties" (in the way that Mrs. Powell, when giving birth to Boog, endured "labor difficulties") and may soon weather a prolonged "work stoppage" (much as Ted Williams is now weathering, in the Arizona desert, a prolonged "life stoppage"). But who cares?
For football has returned, as it does every August, to knock the books from baseball's arms, steal its lunch money and leave the sport suspended in obscurity-hanging, by its Hanes, from a hook in a locker.
NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue was greeted last week in Tokyo by Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, who seemed to regard him as an equal. Baseball commissioner Bud Selig is greeted every lunchtime in Milwaukee by counter personnel at Gilles Frozen Custard stand, who seem to regard him as an equal. The NFL is Paris. Baseball is Paris, Texas.
The pre-preseason scrimmage between the Houston Texans and the Dallas Cowboys last Friday night drew 27,536 fans. That same night the midseason game between the Florida Marlins and Milwaukee Brewers drew 5,167 spectators. But then football plays only one game in a six-month stretch that nobody cares about: its all-star game. Baseball plays but one game in a six-month stretch that everybody cares about: its All-Star Game. Naturally, baseball's is the one that's curtailed to avoid player injuries.
What do you expect? Football is in the hands of men like Dan Rooney. The Pittsburgh Steelers president last week was soloing his Beechcraft Bonanza when the electricity went out, his cell phone died after a few calls (including one to 911), and his landing gear failed to fully deploy, leaving the 70-year-old father of nine to belly-land his plane, in the manner of Pete Rose, in a strip of grass at Allegheny County Airport, where he strode away unscathed from the wrecked fuselage, only to fly again the next morning.
Baseball is in the hands of men like Jim Bowden, the Cincinnati Reds' general manager, who last week likened union president Don Fehr to the Sept. 11 hijackers.
To say that football has displaced baseball as the national pastime, then, is laughably inadequate, like saying that TV has now edged quilting as a popular diversion.
The best player in football, Marshall Faulk, last month signed a contract extension worth just more than $6 million a year, or roughly the salary of Yankees pitcher Sterling Hitchcock, who at week's end had thrown 24? innings this season.
Baseball is said to be beautiful because it doesn't have a clock. But it could use a wristwatch with a calendar function. The NFL will begin its season on Sept. 5 with Bon Jovi performing live in Times Square while a giant football drops amid a throng, as if it's New Year's Eve. Baseball began its season with Dick Cheney throwing a circle change to Texas Rangers backup catcher Bill Haselman, as if it were also New Year's Eve and the year in question was 1943.
Autumn is now the season of renewal, when life begins. Hope falls eternal. After all, there are at least 14 bona fide Super Bowl contenders this season. In baseball, it's barely conceivable that the Arizona Diamondbacks, Atlanta Braves or Yankees will not win the World Series—and any minimal doubt arises only because there may not be a World Series.