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Baseball's charm

Some of us celebrate Opening Day while others think baseball is like watching paint dry.

It is true: players are spoiled and overpaid. The cost to drag an entire family to the ballpark is ridiculous. Games move slowly and last too long.

So, what keeps fans coming back almost every night all summer -- if not to the ballpark, then to the recliner in front of the television?

I have a theory. As a kid, I loved to read history. I loved the characters, good and bad -- both the heroes and the goats.

Baseball pulled me in because it is an epic story. It goes on and on, like the history of the world, with a story line which can never be predicted.

Dynasties, be they the Romans or the Yankees, rise and fall. Empires come and go. Heroes ride to the rescue, only to wear out their welcome and get traded. Or executed.

Each season is a marathon campaign of one hundred and sixty-two games that rewards perseverance more than brilliance, steadiness more than enthusiasm and brains more than brawn -- just like a medieval war.

Just as every king's court needs a jester, every team needs a back-up catcher. You never know when the jester is going to step forward, slay the dragon and win the battle.

Like history, baseball alternates long periods of dull routine with intense bursts of drama.

Baseball has an ironclad set of sacred numbers, standards that have come down through the ages. When long-held records are met or exceeded, tears flow and fireworks go off -- no matter who wins the game that night.

Career numbers are one thing. But each night his or her team plays, a baseball fan thrives on the possibility of a grand, once-in-a-lifetime event: A triple play. A no-hitter. A perfect game. A straight steal of home.

The basic skills of baseball are difficult, even mysterious. How do hitters connect with a curveball they have less than one-fourth of a second to judge? How do outfielders read a fly ball off the bat? How do pitchers hit the corner from sixty feet away?

So when talented players exceed baseball's eternal gold standards by hitting .300, or by winning 20 games, or by knocking in 100 runs, those players become epic heroes no matter what kind of idiots they are off the field.

And more often than not, they are idiots. And not just in the modern time.

The great Ty Cobb was a semi-murderous psychopath, hated even by his own teammates. If he had played in the modern era, Cobb would have spent most of his career in jail for assaulting people in bars and dark alleys.

At the time, however, famous people were protected from their own peccadilloes by the press and the police.

Babe Ruth partied hard every night. Although Madonna wasn't around at the time, he went through every one of her 1920s equivalents.

One time, Ruth ran naked through the press car of the train chased by a woman carrying a butcher knife.

"I think we all agree we didn't see that," said one of the reporters, and nothing of the incident made the papers.

Ted Williams never uttered a profanity-free sentence. He was so consistently vulgar that newspapermen couldn't clean up his quotes for publication.

Baseball players have always had a bad reputation. In the 1800s, no decent girl would marry a baseball player, for baseball players were the lowest of low -- prone to gamble, drink and chew tobacco. And cheat.

Yet, such cads tend to be the great geniuses at playing baseball, a subtle game where the margin of error is a fraction of an inch, where physical prowess means nothing if you can't throw strikes or get the bat on the ball.

Watching paint dry? Baseball might seem that boring to some, but to me it is history in action, history made interesting by the crazy but colorful characters that play the game.

Let's face it: George Washington, like Ted Williams, was seldom quotable when the ladies weren't around. Abe Lincoln's dirty stories couldn't be repeated on network television.

Like good history, baseball entertains best when colorful, offbeat characters perform grand deeds.

It just makes for a better story.