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Jim Williams: Hearing ‘play ball!’ is music to my ears

Batter up! Play ball! Put me in, coach! These words are all so familiar to baseball fans. And as sure as the first spring flowers are about to bloom, spring is here and baseball is back.

No, not just baseball played by multimillion-dollar athletes in front of thousands of fans in coliseum-size stadiums, but baseball played on sandlots and amateur fields. Or simply playing catch with your Dad, brother or friends in the backyard or at the neighborhood playground.

I’m sure we have heard at one time or another from the self-proclaimed sports pundits that the game is too slow, often boring and takes too long to play. While there may be more than an ounce of truth to those statements, remember, unlike any other sport, baseball is measured in outs, not time.

And there are now means in place to address some of these issues. Over the years, baseball has adapted and changed. From ridding itself of gambling nearly 100 years ago, to the ushering in of a “livelier” ball in the 1920s, to enhancing the offensive part of the game. In the late 1960s, the height of the pitcher’s mound was even lowered “to level the playing field” for the batter.

What could be more exciting than going to a game and watching a great catch, or a headlong slide to stretch that double into a triple, or a walk-off home run? Or how about the drama anticipating a no-hitter or a perfect game?

I can’t think of any other sport that conjures up more visual imagery than listening to a baseball game. There were so many legendary radio baseball announcers. Mel Allen, Jack Buck, Ernie Harwell, Harry Caray, Bob Prince, Vin Scully, Phil (“holy cow”) Rizzuto and Buffalo’s own Bill Mazer, just to name a few.

One of my favorite announcers was the late Harwell, longtime voice of the Detroit Tigers. Talk about imagery. Let me share with you one of my favorites. It seemed whenever a foul ball went into the stands among thousands of fans, he would exclaim, “What a great catch that gentleman from Grand Rapids, Michigan, made.”

After the United States entered World War II, there was serious consideration of suspending Major League Baseball for the duration of the war. Yet President Franklin D. Roosevelt felt the game should continue, even though many of the players were going off to fight. He and many others felt playing was good for the morale of millions of Americans, and a positive distraction from the anguish and sacrifices our country and its people were making. During this period travel was restricted, rationing was in effect and consumer goods were in short supply. So watching or listening to a ballgame was a part of the wartime experience.

There is no doubt that with the advent of television, football has captured the attention of the nation’s sport audience. It plays out so well with its instant replays, slow-motion cameras and panoramic views of the playing field. But with the violent nature of the game and the terrible injuries suffered by players, are we becoming modern-day Romans willing to pay inflated ticket prices to watch 21st century gladiators?

Yes, basketball can rightfully claim to be a truly American game. But in my view, baseball is and always will be our national pastime. As the late Ernie Banks, “Mr. Chicago Cubs,” loved to say, “Let’s play two!”