Sunday, February 04, 2007

George Vecsey: Super Bowl Is a Passage to the Joys of Baseball

Many baseball fans are upset with the precarious status of Bernie Williams, who has reportedly been offered a minor league contract by the Yankees.

The New York Times

Published: February 4, 2007

It’s hard to look forward to a baseball season in which Barry Bonds has a job and Bernie Williams doesn’t.

But at least it’s baseball, coming down the pike. That’s the consolation for the cold wave that has hit the Northeast as we hunker down for today’s Super Bowl.

Football will seem a little less benign after recent articles depicting the dangers of brain injuries to pro players. It’s going to be harder to take when broadcasters chortle about athletes having their brainpans scrambled.

By other standards, this is not a bad Super Bowl, what with two civil coaches who don’t creep me out with authoritarian smugness, as a lot do in that sour profession. I loved the Bears when I was a kid in New York (after seeing Sid Luckman’s last cameo homecoming at Yankee Stadium), but that is balanced by respect for Peyton Manning, who has been a class act since he joined the N.F.L. So I will watch, like everybody else.

Gathering in front of the tube on Sunday in the autumn has never seemed more enjoyable than when described by David Halberstam in the introduction to “XL Super Bowl: The Opus.” I somehow missed the football revolution. Always had other things to do on Sunday afternoons. But I can relate to Halberstam, since I enjoy watching soccer from Europe with my pals and baseball with my kids.

As this Arctic blast bears down on us, everybody has different dates circled on the calendar for the warmer months — April 8: “The Sopranos” begins its final season. Somebody gets whacked. July 21: The final Harry Potter book is published. Somebody gets whacked. April 6: Mets at Braves. We will gather at my family’s Southern outpost and buy a bunch of seats in the grandstand and talk about Lenny Dykstra and Tommie Agee, and observe the locals with their quaint hand-chopping ritual.

Meantime, I can already hear the first robin of spring, Roger Clemens, warming up down in Houston, waiting to auction himself to the richest contender. It’s nice that the old feller can wait until June for baseball, but what about the rest of us?

A lot of baseball fans (pro-Yankees, anti-Yankees or just astute human beings) are upset at the precarious status of Bernie Williams, who has reportedly been offered a minor league contract. Williams is a top 10 in most categories in Yankees records, but he will surely be stuck in an awkward feng shui in spring training.

Does Joe Torre show Bernie the respect normally given to elders — allowing him to duck the long bus rides to Fort Myers or Kissimmee when the exhibitions begin in Florida? Does Bernie audition in B games and by playing the last few innings when the regulars are already heading for the parking lot?

Many good fans worry about the disrespect being shown to Bernie, but I have become pragmatic in my old age and I agree with the Yankees’ logic.

Bernie doesn’t run the bases or play the outfield as well as some kids making the minimum salary. In this age of specialists, the Yankees are going with 12 pitchers, leaving no room for National League-style pinch-hitters and double-switch substitutes.

Bernie does not want to go to the Pittsburghs and the Tampa Bays, the Last Chance Saloons of baseball. This can only be uncomfortable. So can the shaky mutual-interest d├ętente in San Francisco, in which the Giants have decided to bring back Bonds for the spectacle of it — come watch Jo Jo the Two-Headed Man eat his twin suppers.

Essentially holding their noses, the Giants had to resort to a mass mailing to patrons to explain why they have offered a $15.8 million contract to Bonds, the aging superstar who has been pretty much exposed as an egomaniac with potential perjury or income-tax raps hanging over him in the wake of the Balco steroids investigation. Bonds is trying to hang on for the 22 home runs that would enable him to pass Henry Aaron’s career record.

Nobody is looking forward to that countdown. The Giants seem blatantly ambiguous about retaining Bonds, having barred his personal trainers — plural, for goodness’ sake — from the clubhouse and having included an escape clause in case he is indicted. Oh, sure, all superstars have that clause.

At last report, the contract was still problematic because the commissioner objected to language about personal appearances. Or because Bonds objected to the clause about possible indictments. Either way, the Giants seem to hope the whole thing dissolves because of a misplaced comma. No such luck.

With the surly Bonds and perhaps without the decent Williams, we will soon begin the hunt for yet another baseball champion, no team having repeated since the Yankees in 2000. Last year, the so-called World Series drew a worldwide average of 19 million fans during the fifth and final game, putting baseball seventh in big-event global viewership, according to Initiative Sports Futures, a Paris-based company.

The most-watched championship was, oh but you guessed it, the World Cup final from Berlin, with an average of 260 million fans at any given time. But the Super Bowl was second with 98 million. Not bad. Count me in. Got to do something until pitchers and catchers report.


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