R.I.P., baseball 

The magic left the game 25 years ago

The magic left the game 25 years ago
Thirty years ago this week, the Atlanta Braves' Hank Aaron broke a record that had long been thought unbreakable - Babe Ruth's 714 career homers. The significance of Aaron's achievement has faded into history by now, overshadowed by 30 years of highly-paid, egomaniacal players screaming into microphones about their own greatness.
Just as I only know one person under 60 who subscribes to the local daily newspaper, I know only one person under 40 who really cares about major league baseball anymore. And I'm not sure that kids today are developing a love of the game, either.
But Aaron's record is, to my mind, the greatest accomplishment in the history of baseball. While I have a hard time these days remembering who won the World Series last year, I have nearly every detail of Aaron's chase of Ruth's record committed to detail. I was on spring vacation on April 4, 1974, when the Braves opened the season against the Cincinnati Reds. The night before, more than 100 people had died in a tornado that had swept through Ohio, but it was bright and sunny at Riverfront Stadium that day in Cincinnati. Jack Billingham of the Reds was the starting pitcher and when Aaron came to bat, he floated a fastball across the plate. Aaron smacked it into the seats for his 714th home run. Four nights later in Atlanta, Aaron broke the record when he hit a home run off the Dodgers' Al Downing. While sports records are routinely broken today, and nobody much pays attention, the entire country was transfixed by the soft-spoken, humble Aaron. Some people rooted for him while thousands of others were enraged that a black man was about to best the beloved Babe Ruth. Aaron received racist hate mail and death threats by the bagful. He traveled with heavy security, fearful of being shot at any moment, either on or off the field. Baseball was still America's pastime when Aaron broke Ruth's record and it seemed that it would always be so. The NFL and NBA were weaker sports. Baseball was the sport that had America's heart. Looking back, the 1970s represented baseball's last gasp of greatness. These days, the game is just another of a million things competing for the attention of American consumers. There were truly great teams back then. You had Cincinnati's Big Red Machine, full of superstars such as Johnny Bench, Tony Perez and the great Pete Rose. They were filled with energy and hustle and verve. There was the new-look Oakland A's, owned by a man who paid his players more if they grew their hair long and wore mustaches. You had the ill-fated Boston Red Sox, who came within a hair of winning a World Series before the reality of their cursed existence reasserted itself. Although I didn't know it at the time, I was witnessing the final years of baseball's greatness. Free agency drove up the players' salaries in the late '70s and long baseball strikes in the '80s silenced the game for months at a time. By the time the 1990s rolled around, baseball was the No. 3 sport behind pro football and basketball. Its magic was long gone and the superstars of the era were faceless individuals by comparison. Only a few teams, like the Red Sox and Cubs, keep the old traditions alive, and even that's based around love of their stadiums, not the players or teams. Even though last year's postseason brought back some of the excitement of the past, the game now is an interminable grind of mediocre teams going through the paces. Scandal after scandal has tarnished its once-pristine image. Like most other professional sports, baseball had priced itself out of reach of most people. A survey out last week showed that a night at the ballpark now costs more than $150 on average for a family of four. It wasn't that way in the 1970s. Even as recently as the 1980s, you could buy bleacher seats at Wrigley Field for under $5 each. Cokes were a dollar, beer about $1.50. Working people could afford to take their families to the game. These days, you either need to make more than $100,000 a year or scam free tickets to go to the game. But it's not just the price, it's the visibility of the game. There are a zillion baseball games on cable TV every week, but who's watching these games? Are there still diehard baseball fans out there? Just as I only know one person under 60 who subscribes to the local daily newspaper, I know only one person under 40 who really cares about major league baseball anymore. And I'm not sure that kids today are developing a love of the game, either. So, as I tip a glass in tribute to the great Hank Aaron's achievement, I'll regard modern-day baseball as a parody of its former self. Wake me up if the Cubs make it to the World Series.

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