THIS SPORTING LIFE....

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On Wednesday of this week the greatest game ever invented in this country (except for horseshoes, shooting marbles and hoops) will resume after nearly nine months of labor strife.

Those who still love baseball can enjoy the moment. I haven't made up my mind yet. But I have been thinking about Hank Bauer, who used to play outfield for the New York Yankees. And about Gil Hodges and some other guys who used to live in Brooklyn. And 55› bleacher tickets. And day games on real grass. And when little kids could see or at least listen to an actual World Series game.

First, Mr. Bauer.

This was the spring or summer of 1951 and I was down at Quantico, Virginia, trying to learn enough to be a Marine officer and get my rear end shipped off to Korea. Understandably, I was somewhat equivocal about this. My company commander was a tall, handsome gent (from California as I recall) named Capt. McNeil. Or MacNeil. However you spelled it, the captain had done some fighting in the Pacific during the Big War when I was still a schoolboy, and knew his way around. But he wasn't, apparently, much of a baseball fan.

One weekend (we had off Saturday afternoon and all day Sunday) the captain was sightseeing up in Washington and in uniform, when he was accosted on the street by a large fit-looking young man, in a crew cut.

"Captain?" "Yes," said Mac, not recognizing the impudent fellow, "what is it?"

"It's me, captain. Henry Bauer. I was one of the Marines in your platoon during the war."

I can't recall if specific battles were mentioned but McNeil finally realized this young husky had indeed been one of his men. And so, after a brisk exchange of compliments and much shaking of hands, the captain inquired:

"And what did you end up doing after you got home, Henry?"

"Well, sir, I became a professional baseball player."

"Ah," said the captain, clearly saddened that one of his combat Marines had not done more with his life, "isn't that something.*.*."

It turned out, of course, that Henry "Hank" Bauer was at that time a member of the New York Yankees who, year after year, were winning pennants and going to the World Series.

Henry Bauer, or Hank, take your choice, was probably then making $35,000 a year and feeling himself extraordinarily fortunate. He would play in All-Star Games and in the Series and eventually become a major league manager. But to his captain during the war, poor Bauer was pretty much a disappointment. I don't know where Henry Bauer is today, or Capt. McNeil, but I don't think either of them would understand, or even begin to grasp, a game of ball in which mediocre players get a million a year and good players can take in two or three or five million in salary and millions more for wearing your sneakers instead of mine, for drinking my soda pop instead of yours.

Though I was a Yankee fan, I actually was born in and grew up in Brooklyn. This led to my being beaten up on a fairly frequent basis by other children who thought of me as either odd or a traitor. Since I was a skinny little boy and easily defeated, I lost many fights. But, like several of the more admirable saints, never quite gave in to dent either God or the Yankees, despite being soundly trounced on a regular basis.

But in those lonely hours between midnight and dawn, when young boys writhe in bed, sleepless and lustful, I occasionally admitted secretly to myself that there were Brooklyn Dodgers one could actually admire. Hodges, for one, who came up as a catcher, but they converted him to first base where he became one of the best fielders of the position and once hit four home runs in a single game.

He was a big strong guy and tough, but didn't throw his weight around, and later managed the Mets and got them into a Series. The nice thing about Hodges and some of the other Dodgers was they actually lived in Brooklyn.

A few of them took the trolley car to work. Just like the men who lived on our block and who were fathers of boys I knew.

Later on I had another hero, Ted Williams. He was up in Boston and feuded with the sportswriters and batted .400. He went in the Marines in the Big War, like Bauer and the captain, and fought the Japanese. Then during Korea, he was called back in again and fought the Chinese and North Koreans. He lost five-plus seasons of major league ball and, not to my knowledge, did he ever bitch.

The greatest ballplayer today, according to many experts, is Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants. His salary this year, now that the strike is over, will be $7.75 million. This is more than Ted Williams and Henry Bauer and Gil Hodges combined ever made in their entire careers.

And Barry Bonds is being sued by his wife of seven years for spousal support and being sued by a porn star with the stage name of Devon Shire. Ms. Shire wants the money for her unborn child and the case is pending. As for the spousal support case, Bonds' wife is Swedish and claims she didn't speak English very well or understand it when they married in 1988 and Barry got her to sign a pre-nup. They have two kids and Barry says he takes care of them financially.

The New York Times, reporting on this story, said during one recent 15-month period Barry Bonds spent $212,368 for stereo and other electronic gear.

Ted Williams never made 200 grand in a season. Randy Velarde, a sub on the Yankees last year, got caught in the glut of free agents. Last year his pay was $1,125,000. He recently re-signed with the Yankees for $350,000 plus $150,000 in incentives. "I'm exuberated," he told the Times, so thrilled he couldn't decide if he was exhilarated or exuberant.

Major league baseball is back. "Take me out to the ballgame, tra la...."

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