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IN FINALE, STUDIO ARENA DELIVERS A WEBB GEM

I parted company with organized baseball a couple of years ago.

Oh, I still love the game. As a longtime closet member of the Red Sox Nation, I resurrected my interest last fall. Occasionally, I read the daily box scores. Many things keep getting in the way, though, of becoming a full-time fan again.

Egos, arrogance, obscene money for major-leaguers with minor-league stats and now the steroid scandal that has voided the magical "Summer of 1998," as sportswriter Mike Lupica dubbed the now-asterisked Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa home run battle.

Then, I went to a Buffalo Bisons game. Usually a great time. I endured the high-decibel music between batters, tried to tune out promotions and giveaways. But when I was told that a pitching change had been brought to me by a local supermarket, I was gone.

But don't let my temporary snit with our national pastime keep you from seeing Studio Arena Theatre's last play of its 40th season, "Rounding Third" by Richard Dresser. It's a very funny, wise and insightful story about Little League and a pair of mismatched coaches and dads, ex-jock Don, corporate geek Michael. Think Oscar and Felix here.

Widower Michael -- his sports experiences are limited to curling -- signs on to be an assistant coach to veteran Don, a no-nonsense, black-and-white guy who tweaks the system successfully. He rigs his roster every year. "The kids you don't want are the ones that try out for 'Brigadoon,' " he warns.

Michael wants the players to have fun and do their best. "The trouble with you, Michael," counsels Don, "is that you want them to get in touch with their feelings, give them a popsicle. I'm preparing them for the world here." Obviously, it's going to be a long season.

So, it's "win at all costs" versus "why can't we all get along." Don rails, Michael cajoles. The two disagree about everything -- parenthood, politics, love, life.

By the time the playoffs arrive, Don and Michael still have an uneasy alliance but have taken on bits of each other's personalities. Winning is still important; How they get the "W" takes on new meaning.

Jane Page directs Tony Campisi as Don, Michael David Edwards as Michael. Campisi and Edwards nail their respective roles. As they lead their young charges, we learn much about both coaches. We get brief glimpses into their personal lives. Studio Arena's artistic director, Gavin Cameron-Webb, is leaving soon. He goes out in style with the casting of these two diverse veteran actors whose characters never agree but manage to convince us that both may be right.

"Rounding Third" won't occupy you for long. But it's about the innocent period of a once-proud sport, about second chances, about time standing still, about that wonderful sound of ball meeting bat, about dreams, about winning and losing with grace.

It's almost enough to make one want to once again heed two of the most glorious words in our language: "Play ball!"

ROUNDING THIRD
Review: 3 1/2 stars (Out of 4)