Ben Bova: Baseball ain’t what it used to be, but ...

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The Fourth of July weekend typically marks the midpoint of the major league baseball races. Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.

Baseball was my favorite sport when I was a youngster. It was a game where size didn’t matter so much as quickness of mind and body. I was never a very good athlete but I enjoyed playing pick-up games in my old neighborhood.

And I enjoyed going out to Shibe Park to watch the Philadelphia Athletics and the Phillies. Eventually the ballyard was renamed Connie Mack Stadium, in honor of the grand old man who had owned and managed the A’s since the American League was formed, in 1901.

I remember the first time Yogi Berra played in Philadelphia. For the detested New York Yankees, of course. He was a hulking, shambling figure. Unlike the squeaky-clean-cut other Yanks, Yogi’s hair was down to his shoulders.

When he went into the batting cage during the pre-game practice, a voice from the grandstand hollered, “Okay! You got him in the cage. Now lock the gate!”

Yogi repaid the compliment by bouncing a couple of doubles off the right-field wall that afternoon.

Then there was the time the Brooklyn Dodgers came into town for a game against the Phillies. They had a newcomer in center field, some guy named Edwin Snider, according to the scorecard. He must be pretty good, I thought, to move Carl Furillo out of center field and into right.

Pretty good. His first at-bat Snider socked an inside-the-park home run. Next he belted a double off the wall. His third time up he hit a single and I figured we had him winded. Wrong. His fourth at-bat he slugged a home run over that 30-foot wall in right.

That was my introduction to Duke Snider.

I was in my mid-20s when my career took me to the Boston area and I became hopelessly hooked on the Red Sox.

The Sox really weren’t very good in the late 1950s and early ’60s. You could walk into Fenway Park and buy a box seat for an afternoon game because the place was half-empty.

I remember a fan who seemed to be sitting behind home plate every time I went to Fenway. As the game dragged drearily into the late innings he would bellow to the drowsing Sox fielders, “Do something! Even if it’s wrong, do something!”

I found that to be a good piece of advice. Make your decisions and act on them. Even if you’re wrong, don’t procrastinate or try to shift the responsibility to others. If you’re any good at what you’re doing, you’ll make more right decisions than wrong ones. If you aren’t any good, you should move elsewhere.

Then came the Miracle Year of 1967, and the Red Sox won the American League championship in a squeaker of a race that wasn’t settled until the last day of the season. It was the Year of the Yaz, when Carl Yastrzemski seemingly could do no wrong. He led the league in batting, home runs and runs batted in, played left field flawlessly and led the team to the pennant.

The Red Sox lost the World Series in seven games, but we Boston fans were too exhilarated (and exhausted) by the pennant race to care very much.

One night I went to a Sox game with a half-dozen colleagues from the lab we worked in. There had been a summer-long drought, but that afternoon the skies darkened and the rain began to pour down. And here were seven grown men, six of them Ph.Ds, standing by a rain-streaked window telling ourselves that it was only a shower.

When we got to Fenway that night there were only a couple of dozen other fanatics waiting for the game to begin. The infield tarpaulin was covered with several inches of water. We could see whitecaps dancing across it.

“It’s only a shower,” we kept muttering, right up to the moment when the public address system announced that the game had been called. Because of rain, the announcer added.

A few years later I moved to New York and began to drift away from following the Red Sox’s fortunes. I did get to a game when the Sox visited the despised Yankees and watched Luis Tiant befuddle the Yanks’ batters while the Sox rolled up an easy victory.

But baseball was changing and so was I.

The leagues expanded. The American League adopted the designated hitter rule. And the players won the right to become free agents and offer their services to the highest bidder, rather than remain bound by contract to the same team year after year.

I think it was free agency that pretty much spoiled the game for me. I don’t begrudge the fact that a .240 hitting shortstop can now demand a few million dollars a year — and get it. But how can you remain loyal to a team when you don’t know who’ll be playing on the squad from one year to the next?

By then I had moved to Southwest Florida and had no home team near enough to root for in person.

And baseball doesn’t show well on television. It looks very slow, actually boring a lot of the time. Of course, current strategies of replacing pitchers every few innings slow the game a lot.

Then came the steroid revolution and the convoluted evasions and cover-ups by both players and management. Astounding new batting records don’t mean much when the batter is juiced on steroids.

So I’ve pretty much lost interest in baseball.

Yet ... the Tampa Bay Rays have a good young team, with lots of speed on the basepaths, and Tropicana Field is only a couple of hours away.

Maybe there’s still some fun left in the old game after all.

Naples resident Ben Bova is the author of 120 books, including “The Immortality Factor,” which is being developed for a major motion picture. Dr. Bova’s web site address is www.benbova.com

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