Even for me, a foreigner here (and by no means a regular sports nut), resisting the pull of baseball has been futile. The rules may still be a bit fuzzy and some of the rituals mysterious. But there is nothing as touching in America as a ballgame under floodlights, the players in their old-fashioned outfits and the pitcher's leg rising as the ball begins its journey from mound to plate.
And now the romance is all gone. Thirty-five days ago, when this season was shaping up to be one of the most scintillating on record, a players' strike over pay forced the ballparks to close. People muttered about the whole season being lost and perhaps next year's, too, but you did not believe it. Nobody could be that crass. This was the 'national pastime'.
But as the strike wore on and negotiations between owners and players went nowhere, reality set in. On Wednesday, the owners declared the season officially scrubbed. Baseball is no longer about cheers on the terraces, about trading players' cards in the school yard or even about queueing at the franchises for Budweiser and chilly dogs. It is a mega-buck entertainment industry, where soul has given way to ego and greed.
It is, after all, an odd kind of set- up where a professional sport is at the mercy of 28 people (27 men and one woman) - the owners of the major leagues' teams. Because of a strange anomaly whereby the sport is exempt from all usual US anti-trust regulation, it is for this group to call the shots. They alone decide who may join their leagues, and sell the precious franchises for multi-millions. Now negotiations with the players are deadlocked, the owners are threatening to impose the pay structures that the players have so furiously fought.
The owners' position is straightforward. Rather than allow salaries to balloon, as they have been doing for years, they want to impose a cap on pay. They say that 19 of the 28 teams are losing money and action has to be taken. The players are screaming. But here's the other oddity about this dispute: the average annual player's salary stands at dollars 1.2m.
No wonder the fans are disgusted with both sides. Many are declaring 'a plague on both your houses' and vowing to kick the baseball habit for good. Take John Schwartz, a sales executive from the Bronx: 'I can say that the last baseball game I ever attended was Phil Rizzuto night at Yankee Stadium a couple of days before the strike. I'm not going to be a part of the baseball picture any more.' Countless others are making the same pledge.
There have been strikes before - this is the eighth in about 20 years - but this time there is a sourness to the dispute that has never been felt before. And there is a real possibility that baseball is indeed on the wane.
For one thing, there is the damage being done by the loss of revenues. It has been calculated that for every game cancelled in a city like Baltimore with a major leagues stadium, the economic loss to that community is dollars 1.16m. The owners themselves are reckoned to have forfeited dollars 442m in revenues from the abandonment of the remainder of the season, not counting revenue that would have come from post-season play-offs and the World Series.
All those who feed off the sport - from clothing suppliers to stadium vendors - will feel the loss. 'I'd say it's hurt us by seven to 10 million dollars in post-season business,' says Tom Shine, President of Logo 7, an Indiana athletics clothing supplier. The Baseball Network, an unprecedented joint venture set up by ABC and NBC television to screen this season's play-offs and World Series, will lose dollars 100m.
So fans and business will be drawn to American Football, basketball and ice hockey. Who knows, if its promoters play their cards well in establishing a new professional league next summer on the back of the World Cup enthusiasm, soccer might find a way into American hearts.
To some, what is happening was inevitable. The 'national pastime' label, they argue, became spurious when Americans began watching television for an average of seven hours a day. The spiralling commercial stakes and soaring salaries made it unavoidable that the whole stack of cards would eventually succumb to an almighty clash of egos and bank balances.
And yet the poignancy is hard to ignore. Maybe the baseball of Joe DiMaggio and Babe Ruth did die 20 years ago, but its soul had still not flown. Perhaps on Wednesday, when the owners declared the 1994 season abandoned, it finally went: one last corner of gut America overcome by the ordinary, unadmirable, all-American drive for money and advantage.
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