"Where did the sport lose its way?

Major League Baseball’s season starts this week, and while I’m sure there are millions of people excited by this news, to me it means almost nothing.

Although I was a baseball fan years ago, nowadays I get more excited about the European soccer championship and the WNBA season. It’s funny how time changes things.

Baseball lost me as a fan years ago, when a players’ strike reminded me there were other ways in which to spend my free time than watching a four-hour scoreless game.

As a child, though, I lived and breathed baseball, particularly the Cincinnati Reds and our own Indianapolis Indians. The Indians were the Reds’ AAA farm team at the time, and it was exciting to see the young players develop and make their way to the majors.

I have trouble remembering things that happened last week, but the Reds’ starting lineup from the 1970s is still stuck in my mind. The Big Red Machine, as the mid-1970s Cincinnati team was known, was one of the most powerful squads ever assembled.

The team included Hall of Famers Johnny Bench, Tony Perez and Joe Morgan, as well as Pete Rose, who should be in the Hall of Fame but isn’t. The outfield had home run kings Ken Griffey and George Foster.

My family wasn’t wealthy, but several times a year we’d make the drive to Cincy and watch the Reds in action. Riverfront Stadium, where the Reds played, was built in 1970 and was considered an ugly ballpark, part of the series of generic, nondescript ballparks built around that time.

To me, though, it was amazingly beautiful. To my eyes, it was a palace of sport and I felt a twinge of sadness when it was finally demolished a few years ago.

It was there that I saw Hank Aaron smash a home run into right field, possibly the most exciting sporting experience of my life. It was there I saw Rose hustle his way across the field and witnessed so many other memories that stay with me still.

It’s hard to understand now just how much Aaron’s pursuit of Babe Ruth’s home run record captivated the nation. Aaron was the recipient of racist death threats. Television networks interrupted their programming each time Hank hit another one. It was all that people seemed to talk about.

Aaron was a quiet, reserved man who seemed vaguely embarrassed by all the attention he received. He carried himself throughout the controversy with dignity and grace. Even his biggest detractors had to admire his courage under fire.

Barry Bonds begins the 2007 season just 21 homers behind Aaron’s record, but the situation couldn’t be more different. Whereas Aaron was a model of integrity, Bonds is the poster child for all of the things that have ruined modern baseball: steroid use, jacked-up baseballs and designer ballparks designed to allow homers and priced to keep casual fans out.

I remember countless afternoons spent in the bleachers of Wrigley Field, where as late as 1982 you could buy a ticket for $4 and a Coke for $1. From my vantage point in left field, I could look through my binoculars and watch Harry Caray, the Cubs’ broadcaster, down beer after beer during the game. By the time he sang “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” he could barely stand up.

That kind of experience is long gone from baseball. While there are great teams and great players, nobody seems to embody the grace of Aaron, the determination of Rose or the quiet mastery of Nolan Ryan.

Baseball has let us down. Once considered a pure sport, scandals, strikes and controversies have ruined the game for many of us. The NFL, college basketball and NASCAR have replaced baseball as the favorite sport of the masses.

What baseball needs is an old-fashioned revival. They could start by allowing Rose into his rightful spot in Cooperstown. Instead of glorifying Bonds, Aaron should be celebrated in each park in the majors.

Most of all, the game needs an image makeover. Tweak the rules to allow a speedier game and to restore the balance between pitcher and hitter. Something. Anything.

So forgive me if I don’t get too enthusiastic about the start of the baseball season. There are just too many things wrong with the game and not enough things right about it. Until there are some major changes, I’ll just content myself with my memories of when the game was played by kings and legends, not the pretenders of today.