Leading Article: Playing like amateurs - if only they would

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AMERICAN baseball has traditionally been a family sport played by heroes. Joe DiMaggio, the Forties colossus, used to tell children: 'I'll hit a home run for you', and he did. Even today everyone joins in at the seventh-inning stretch for a chorus of 'Take me out to the ball game'. No more. This week the 1994 World Series was cancelled because of a players' strike against plans to cap their salaries (average pounds 769,000). Greed has killed the game, at least for this season. These days, it would be more appropriate for baseball's superstars to adopt the refrain sung at Millwall: 'No one likes us, we don't care.'

Like so many professional sports, baseball has lost sight of its main task: to entertain the fans who pay the wages. It may be too much to expect professionals to behave like amateurs, literally lovers of their chosen games. But, too often, the overwhelming desire to make money inspires tedious tactics.

For example, one-day cricket, introduced to encourage exciting shots to the boundary, has become a ruthlessly efficient and essentially negative game. Rugby union is losing its brilliance and much of the charm has gone out of tennis.

Fortunately, sports that become boring are not beyond redemption. A recovery in football could be spotted during this summer's World Cup, thanks to a clampdown on fouls. Andre Agassi rescued the US Open at Flushing Meadow from the numbing influence of automata such as Pete Sampras. Tennis's governing bodies are considering rule changes that may lengthen rallies by reducing the advantage that high-powered racquets give servers.

But sport will not be saved solely by transforming professional attitudes. Players who do not reach Olympian heights need encouragement. This week, the Labour Party drew attention to the declining importance of school games in the curriculum. Team sports carried out at weekends, after school and at lunchtimes have decreased in more than 60 per cent of state schools over the past 10 years, according to the Secondary Heads Association. More than 5,000 school playing fields have been sold since 1979.

Bringing the thrill back to professional sports would help inspire new heroes. But unless young people have facilities and teaching, enthusiasm will wither at each equally important end of this spectrum.

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