The grand old game is back. In reality of course, baseball never went away, but these last decades have not been easy: the ugly labour dispute that cost the 1994 World Series, followed by the era of steroids, scandals and suspect superstars like Barry Bonds, that sullied the sacrosanct purity of its statistics, and whose legal aftermath still lingers.
But thanks to this year's epic World Series that reached its climax late on Friday in the venerable baseball city of St Louis, the sport is back in its rightful place in American hearts.
"I'm really proud to be in charge of a sport that has produced what just happened," an emotional Bud Selig, the Commissioner of Baseball, told reporters. And who could disagree?
The St Louis Cardinals had defeated the Texas Rangers in a World Series that had everything, generating memories to keep fans going through winters to come. It's up there with the very best in history – with Arizona's seventh-game, bottom-of-the-ninth win over the New York Yankees in 2001, baseball's contribution to salving the wounds of 9/11; or unfancied Pittsburgh's triumph over the Yankees in similar circumstances in 1960, or even 1955 when "next year" finally arrived in Brooklyn and the Dodgers won their first and only championship in New York.
And it wasn't just the World Series. Both wild-card spots were only decided on a pulsating final night of the regular season, on which the Boston Red Sox (who else?) wrapped up the most spectacular late season collapse in history. The seven play-off series were thrilling, with four of them going down to the deciding game. They featured 13 games settled by one run, as well as the early elimination of the Yankees and the Philadelphia Phillies, despite their $200 million payrolls and all-star line-ups. In baseball at least, money can't buy everything.
Above all there was the fairytale of the Cardinals. In late August they were 10 games out of the National League wild-card place. But in baseball you're not dead until the autopsy has been conducted and the coffin is in the earth, and maybe not even then. St Louis defeated the Phillies in the first round, then Milwaukee to win the NL pennant, before sealing matters against Texas.
The Series had everything: close games, spectacular hitting and tremendous defence by both teams, plus one blowout when the Cardinals' Albert Pujols, arguably the sport's finest player, struck three home runs in a single World Series game. Then there was the unforgettable Game Six that will forever be part of baseball folklore.
At first it was error strewn. The home team took an early lead, then Texas gained control, and then proceedings turned sublime. Once again, St Louis refused to die. Five times the Cardinals came back from a deficit, finally clinching the game in the 11th innings, on a solo homer by David Freese, the hometown boy who once felt "burned out" and almost gave up the game for good, only to persevere and establish a record for runs batted in during a post-season. You couldn't make this stuff up.
Twice the Cardinals were down to their last strike, the baseball equivalent equivalent of facing match point in tennis – and when your opponent is serving. Indeed tennis may be the closest sporting equivalent to baseball, where everything can change on a single point. Game Six with its endless twists and last-ditch heroics reminded you of an epic tennis duel: Djokovic/ Federer at the recent US Open, or Nadal and Federer in their immortal Wimbledon final of 2008.
That set up Friday night's decider. Had the Rangers won it and the World Series, Game Six would have been just an abstruse footnote in baseball history. By then however, you knew destiny was with the Cardinals. They had somehow scrambled across the last ravine dividing them from the summit of Everest. In Game Seven, the Rangers took an early lead but were quickly caught. By the end of the third inning, the Cardinals led 3-2, and thereafter never looked like losing. Eventually, they won 6-2, consigning Texas to the misery of two consecutive World Series losses.
For anyone not living in the Dallas/Fort Worth area however, it was heaven. Even though this Series did not feature a glamorous, big box-office franchise like the Yankees, Red Sox or Los Angeles Dodgers, Friday night's was the most watched baseball game in nearly a decade on national television. Truly, the grand old game is back, and has rarely been in better shape.
The sport is clean, with strict drug testing and severe punishment for offenders. It is balanced too. Eight teams have won the last 10 championships, and had the Rangers prevailed this year, it would have been nine out of 10. Attendances are surging, and Selig now plans to add an extra wild-card spot for each League, meaning fewer meaningless late-season games, and potentially even more exciting playoffs.
Meanwhile all is peaceful on the labour front, making baseball an exception in the troubled landscape of US major league sport. The NFL has just emerged from an 18-week lockout by its owners, while the latest breakdown in negotiations between NBA owners and the players union means the entire basketball season, which should have started a month ago, could now be lost. For baseball, the biggest outstanding question is merely whether Pujols, who is now a free agent, shatters the record for richest contract awarded a single player.
And baseball's success is not limited to the field. Normally dreary front-office management provides the theme for the current smash-hit movie Moneyball, starring Brad Pitt. Meanwhile the sport's most famous movie lot of all, the farm in Dyersville, Iowa, where Field of Dreams was filmed, is being sold.
But it's not being replaced by a shopping mall. The setting – the rolling cornfields, and the white painted farmhouse where Kevin Costner dreamt of Shoeless Joe Jackson – will stay. Alongside, the farm's new owners will erect a full-scale baseball centre, with seven fields, and year-round facilities. The project, like the fabulous 2011 World Series, is just another sign of baseball's new boom times. If you build it they will come.Reuse content