Jewish World Review April 5, 2004 / 14 Nissan, 5764

Mike Barnicle

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Just in time, baseball pitches relief | WASHINGTON — A heavy spring rain turned a dark day into an even darker evening as the TV and newspapers carried pictures and stories of dead Americans burned and mutilated on the streets of Iraq. The news was depressing and created a feeling of anxiety about what might happen today, never mind tomorrow, in a country where good deeds and better intentions disappear in a pool of blood.

So, it came as a relief when I saw Duke Snider in the alcove outside the rotunda of the National Museum of Natural History a couple of nights ago. Just looking at him brought a momentary escape from the clutches of war.

The old Dodger, along with 33 other members of the Hall of Fame, came to kick off an exhibit, Baseball as America. Yogi wasn't there but, looking around, he might have said; "It's déjà vu all over again."

Baseball comes out of the long winter bullpen now, not a moment too soon. The country needs it.

Earlier in the day, the Hall of Famers had been at the White House. There, the President must have felt a moment's relief to be talking to Gary Carter instead of about Richard Clarke.

The night was like eavesdropping on a gentle part of our history. Bobby Doerr of the Red Sox talked about 1948, when his club lost the pennant in a playoff as if that whole year just happened. Tom Seaver nodded while Doerr spoke. Dave Winfield smiled. And Monte Irvin, who once roamed the Polo Grounds, sympathized with the old man's still-fresh heartache over a last-minute loss.

I couldn't help but compare them with today's players. I know it's not fair and far too judgmental, but guys like Carlton Fisk, Al Kaline, Lou Brock, Bill Mazeroski, Ernie Banks, George Brett, Juan Marichal and the others appear to have a core of character and a love for their sport that might be missing in current rosters.

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There are probably a couple of reasons. A lot of the Hall of Famers the other night - 17 of 34 - spent their entire career with one team. Eight others played for only two clubs. The money was nowhere near what guys get paid today. And their affection for their game and for one another was obvious.

"It was so different," Bob Feller said. "I had it in my contract with the Indians that I'd get a nickel a head for every fan over 500,000 we drew in Cleveland during the year. Made me want to go out and drag people off the street into the ballpark."

Tim Russert of "Meet the Press" introduced each player with a flourish. The older guys were thrilled, and the younger ones, like Johnny Bench, were impressed. Snider seemed to get the loudest ovation, and because the event was in Washington, I couldn't figure out why.

Maybe it was because Snider and the Dodgers reminded everyone of an easier time in the nation's life; when a Subway Series was common and the city had not suffered the wounds of a war that arrives each hour in the headlines. It was a day when the sight of a center fielder from the ages brought a moment's relief from reality.

JWR contributor Mike Barnicle is a columnist for the New York Daily News. Comment by clicking here.


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