BASEBALL STEALING GAME FROM CHILDREN

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A while back I wrote a column about our deteriorating values and standards. "The real problem is that the bedrock structure of our society-of any society-doesn't exist among a big portion of our population," I opined.

I received a very thoughtful reply from Roger Rienstra, president of Witherspoon Advertising and PR in Fort Worth, Texas.

"Our kids learned from TV," Mr. Rienstra wrote me, "that it is OK-even cool-to be disrespectful, smart alecky. . . I particularly notice the erosion of the old notions of teamwork, sportsmanship and fair play. This is apparent in today's televised athletic events. Now we have look-at-me end-zone celebrations, taunting, gloating, crowd incitements and public arguments about how exorbitantly professional athletes are to be paid."

Major League Baseball is the first professional sport to feel the fans' wrath (attendance is down 20% this year, and the All-Star Game had the lowest TV ratings ever). But if the kind of shenanigans Mr. Rienstra talked about continue, it won't be the last.

People yearn for civility, in sports as well as politics. When President Clinton and Newt Gingrich appeared together on the same stage in New Hampshire and were actually civil and cordial to one another, they both got an overwhelmingly positive reaction. But that sort of gentlemanly discourse hardly ever happens in politics any more.

Nor does it happen in sports. The other day Yankee pitcher Jack McDowell gave fans the finger when they razzed him for giving up nine runs on 13 hits to his old Chicago teammates.

Two Hall of Fame baseball players, Willie McCovey and Duke Snider, pleaded guilty to not reporting thousands of dollars from signing autographs at memorabilia shows. While they were raking in all that dough, they probably refused to sign a kid's baseball or scorecard for free.

What strikes me is how profoundly sad baseball is making its ex-fans. After writing I no longer read about or watch baseball on TV, I received an e-mail from one of our staff members, Electronic Media's Graphics Editor Jack McCarthy.

"I'm a lifelong White Sox fan, having spent my formative years just four blocks from old Comiskey Park. As a kid, I thought it was pretty special to live in the shadow of a major league ballpark.

"These memories of a more idyllic era are in sharp contrast to today's reality. After last season, I opted to ignore the game. Baseball is in my blood. I had planned to introduce my 3-year-old son to the game and carry on one of those father-son traditions. Not anymore."

Even Mayor Daley of Chicago sounds disheartened, a very un-mayorlike state of mind. "I just don't have any interest, and baseball has real problems. Since the players went back, I haven't heard one person talk to me about baseball."

It sounds to me as if Mayor Daley enjoyed talking to his constituents about baseball. No sport has the right to rob us of that or of a father's anticipation of introducing his son to the game.

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