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Looking back on the baseball strike

There are certain events that are too strange for fiction -- or even the New Journalism. They must be written about from a proper distance in time. Here, then, is how the baseball strike could look to a slightly pretentious historian in the year 2006:

Exactly 25 years ago this summer one of those trivial accidents occurred to the American people that can, nevertheless, make a society wobble in orbit like a space platform hit by a meteor. By no historical standards was the baseball strike of '81 a major event. Yet consequences ensued that we today, in our postbaseball world, must stretch our imginations to appreciate.

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One minute they were all there, and the next minute they were gone, as if a wand had been waved over them -- the favorite heroes and villains of a nation, the personalities of baseball. Until then nobody had quite realized how much the American people -- screaming at ballparks, groaning before their TV sets -- depended on the so-called national pastime to "blow off steam," as the expression went in those days.

Grown men and women walked the streets with their mouths set in an unsatisfied boo, pointed toward those vanished scapegoats: umpires, managers, millionaires in batting slumps.

A nation of taxi drivers fell silent.

At first a kind of hysteria prevailed as frantic substitutes were invented. Local TV stations ran tapes from the games of the past. In San Diego the reruns were called "Fantasy Baseball," featuring only victories that fancifully propelled the Padres into first place. Through Ted Turner's cable TV distraught citizens were partially comforted by the sight of Ronald Reagan pitching his way past all opposition as Grover Cleveland Alexander in "The Winning Team." A Boston radio station desperately recreated the longest game in baseball history -- 32 innings played earlier that spring in Pawtucket, R.I. (A 33rd inning completed the game in June.)

After all, a whole industry was threatened. Everybody from hot dot manufacturers to scorecard peddlers became endangered species. Sportswriters journeyed to small towns to ask stars of the past what they thought of the strike. Nostalgia made the headlines, and so did minor sports. A canoe race became big news.

But nothing finally could fill the void, and so the void filled itself. Slowly, imperceptibly a whole society of baseball fans broke the habit.

Institutions are delicate -- Americans in 1981 had learned that. But out of greed or complacency the powers-that-were failed to understand how much baseball too was a matter of public consent.

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It is always risky to allow people the leisure to see things in perspective. The week that the strike began the news item appeared that the average income of an American author amounted to less than $5,000 a year. With an annual salary of $1,400,000 the Yankee out- fielder Dave Winfield earned almost twice that sum for playing a single game. This sort of peculiar fact -- once taken for granted -- began to loom large.

Still, when the strike was settled, most Americans thought that was that. Things were back to normal. But gradually it became clear that a certain number of marginal fans never became fans again, and the truly passionate ones discovered a new coolness in their hearts.

We all know what eventually happened. Curling became the national pastime -- a fact we take for granted today as once we assumed the prevailing obsession with baseball. And today, as we tremble on the verge of a major-league curling strike, we urge the rink owners and the stars of the game to reconsider.

Curlers are now the billionaires of sport -- the faces on bubble-gum cards, the autographs prized by school children, the subjects of conversation between hovercraft operators and their fares. Curlers and rink owners think their fans will wait forever. Where else do they have to go?

We invite the titans of the industry to use their idle time to visit the baseball museum at Cooperstown, N.Y. -- now a museum indeed. As we suggest in our forthcoming book, "From Baseball to Curling: A Revolution in American Mores, " there is nothing in the laws of history that guarantees we will be a nation of curl ers forever.

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