AFTER THE WHISTLE

Baseball's golden age is long gone

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— I think that I must have grown up in the golden age of baseball.

When I was young every neighborhood kid knew the stories about legends like Baby Ruth, Mickey Mantle and Hank Aaron. Back then baseball was still producing new stars like Steve Carlton, Willie Stargell and Reggie Jackson that I can tell my son about.

It was a time when kids were not concerned about the player's personal life as long as they were stars on the field and their baseball cards held their value (which was not measured so much in money, but in the value of the street trade) inside the cardboard box on the closet shelf. Back then there were certain players every kid wanted to have in his box and not because it might be worth something 25 years down the road.

Those days are gone.

Today, the pleasure I got from trading and collecting baseball cards as a kid has disappeared faster than my love of watching the game on television.

The problem is that these days every kid slides the perfect card into a plastic sleeve a few seconds after purchasing it at the store and then pampers it just like it was the actual major league star that appears on the front.

Someday those kids, who will be adults, will pull the cards out of the box to show them to their children.

But chances are the next generation of children will glance at the cards, protected inside those protective acid-free sleeves, and wonder why in the world anybody was ever interested in the game of baseball or the player who ruined it.

Major league owners and baseball players managed to avoid a strike last week; however, any fan of the game knows the 11th-hour decision came far too late to protect baseball's already tarnished image.

A Sports Illustrated poll found only 4 percent of people questioned supported the players, compared with 74 percent who said they were fed up with both the players and owners. As evidence of the signs that appeared at stadiums around the country before last week's strike deadline, fans feel like the players are spoiled these days and I think they're right.

It's almost impossible to find legends these days when the players in the game are looking out for themselves instead of history. The really scary thing is the fans' feelings are not just limited to baseball. The stars of football and basketball are facing the same image problems. I'm pretty sure it has something to do with those multimillion-dollar salaries the top players collect each year.

Maybe that is why so many other people have started watching golf on television?

Sure Tiger Woods makes millions of dollars each year, but he earned it by winning tournaments and making a name for himself. The day he stops winning, the big-prize checks and the million-dollar endorsements will all disappear. He might decide to skip a tournament, but he can't go on strike. However, this sports fan is still not willing to spend my Sunday afternoons in front of the television watching the final round of some big golf tournament.

I would rather watch 11 hours of "The Golden Girls" on Lifetime or a "Three's Company" marathon on Nick At Night.

No, instead I'll just wait for the day the heroes return to the games I love. The day when children want to start saving cards because they look up to the players for what they do on the field not all the noise they make off it.

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