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Widespread wintry nonsense to the contrary, the thinking man's spring came once again to the U.S. last week exactly as advertised.
Every right-thinking man knows that while other countries and other climes must wait for the first robin or the vernal equinox to signal the start of their annual season of hope, spring comes to the U.S. when spring training comes to baseball.
It mattered not a catcher's curse, therefore, that the first tender green shoots of the astronomer's spring were turning blue with the cold last week. To counter them the sports pages were gloriously green with the tender buds of highly paid rookiedom, the air from the South was surrant with Stengelese as the Yankees' aging mother hen reassured his young, and all over the land necks ached in sympathy with the stiffening neck muscles of the Boston Red Sox veteran slugger, Ted Williams.
A well-intentioned but poorly informed Yugoslavian athlete (who had better remain nameless) recently suggested in the interests of global unity that the U.S. drop baseball and adopt soccer as its national game like virtually every other nation in the world. Not a chance. Baseball has had many critics recently, but it is doubtful if even the harshest of them would quickly second this motion; baseball is as vital and intrinsic a part of the U.S. summer as the green grass itself. But the best green grass does not just happen. It must be nurtured and weeded.
Someone once mourned about grand opera that it was not what it used to be and was quickly brought short by a critic who remarked, "Yes, it is; that's what's wrong with it." Much of what's wrong with baseball is that it is what it used to be.
The seasons 1958 and 1959 were two of the best in big league history; not because the old game was the same as ever, but because it had suddenly struck out into pioneer territory, opening up new vistas. The season of 1961 gives promise of even wider and more drastic changes with the advent of a third major league. Many fans as well as many of those in charge of the national game would willingly choke off all change in favor of the status quo, just as they would willingly have barred expansion to the West Coast when the trek to California began.
We are frankly bored with such obstructionist attitudes in baseball, just as we and many other fans are becoming increasingly bored with the annual spring crop of cliffhanging would-be holdouts. The holdout is a relic of another day when the sports fan had little else to read or to think about in the long dreary stretch between seasons but the future and security of his favorites. Now he himself is often too busy skiing or skin-diving off Bermuda, following basketball or practicing his putts to be seduced and beguiled by such plainly concocted melodrama. Besides, he knows that any star already has security by way of the game's new "residuals"—bowling alleys, restaurants, saloons, endorsements, guest shots. The fact that Mickey Mantle is now an official holdout for the first time in his career adds little to the luster of the Yankee legend or to Mickey's stature as a national hero. On the day the Yanks began training, Mickey was happily totting up the books in his profitable bowling alley in Dallas and sulking over a reported $15,000 cut in the salary offered by Yankee General Manager George Weiss. "I've been waiting for them to call," said Mickey, refusing to leave Dallas. "The time has come for Mantle to grow up," said Weiss. "He must be made aware of the fact that a deal like ours demands man-to-man conversation, not dickering over a telephone."
The fact is that at Mickey's prices ($75,000 last season), a few dollars more or less are of as little interest to the average fan as the taxes paid on Yankee Stadium.
There was a time when the Yankees were the greatest thing in baseball and Mickey was the greatest thing on the Yankees. A glance at last year suggests that this is no longer the case. It is not inconceivable that some future score card may show Joe Blow and the Buffalo Bisons of the Continental League outstripping them both. If Mr. Weiss, Mr. Mantle and a hundred other big league baseballers are really interested in keeping their franchise with the American people's interest, they would do well to stop haggling, stop counting pennies and start playing ball. That's what the big league ball fans want from the game.