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In today's world baseball's traditional popularity is at serious risk

IN A time before blanket television coverage, player power and salaries to dwarf what some people get for running countries, baseball stood at the centre of American life.

I know about this from books and movies and conversations with people who speak about the game in reverential terms, rather like Burt Lancaster's ageing thief in Atlantic City saying: "You should have seen the ocean back then."

For purposes of comparison, before the 1998 baseball season's opening- day ritual this week I read again David Halberstam's book The Summer Of '49, which is a vivid account of the 1949 pennant race, in which two legendary rivals, the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees, battled to a winner- take-all final game.

The romance of baseball and what it meant then in the American psyche is made clear by this description. "The fever was in the streets. On Saturday morning the crowd gathered early, not only in Fenway Park to watch the Red Sox and the Yankees in their early work outs, but also outside the nearby Kenmore Hotel where the Yankees were known to be staying... When Charles Silvera, a young catcher just brought up from the minor leagues, saw the streets outside the hotel jammed with excited Boston fans, he felt like a Christian on his way to the Coliseum [sic]. It was, thought Silvera, as though nothing in the world matters except this game."

Times change, maybe for the worse, maybe for the better, and they have changed enough to put baseball's traditional popularity at serious risk from what a friend, Pat Putnam, calls "competition for the leisure dollar."

Putnam, a decorated veteran of the Korean war who covered many big events for the American magazine Sports Illustrated and makes guest appearances for The Observer, coaches junior baseball in retirement. "Baseball remains the American game," he said, "but it has a generational problem. There are so many things kids can take up today and many don't have the attention span for baseball. Up here [Putnam lives near to the city of Albany in the state of New York] we lose a lot of them to a thriving soccer programme."

Thus, baseball's Opening Day was seen to be a test of the game's resilience, its traditional loyalties. Opening Day was celebrated by 49,142 spectators at Shea Stadium where the New York Mets gained a 1-0 victory over the Philadelphia Athletics in the 14th inning.

The visitor finds baseball as difficult to understand as Americans find cricket but its nuances are compelling. As the Newsday columnist Steve Jacobson wrote yesterday: "That's the beauty of it [Opening Day] all. Too hokey [corny] for sophisticated New Yorkers, of course, except it's all about today, yesterday and the promise of tomorrow, woven into one piece of cloth."

Despite fears of terminal decline raised by the players' strike two years ago and cynical corporate manoeuvres, like that of the Florida Marlins owner, Wayne Huizenga, who sold off almost his entire team after winning the World Series last season, baseball is at least holding its ground.

Bunting draped from the railings at Shea included the message, "We skipped school to watch da Mets." Maybe there is a new generation of aficionados out there although by the look of things many in the audience could look back on more years than they find comfortable to remember.

At Shea I fell into conversation with a fan who has not missed Opening Day in more than 50 years. He grew up supporting the Brooklyn Dodgers and wept when they departed for California, something gone from his life with the crash of a wrecking ball into the Dodgers' famous old home, Ebbets Field.

Baseball for him is a passion passed on from father to son, the smell from hot dog stands and merciless barracking. "A lot has changed," he said, "too much baseball on television [five of Tuesday's game could be watched live at intervals on various channels], fewer heroes. But I stay with it. Baseball is my game, America's game."

Baseball for me is Halberstam's tale of Joe DiMaggio at bat for the Yankees in Boston after recovering from an injury. "Never throw to this guy on the inside," Boston's lead off pitcher had said to a rookie in the bullpen. Ignoring his own advice, the next thing the pitcher heard was the ball hitting a floodlight pylon. All DiMaggio could hear was the roar of the crowd.