TV REVIEW : A Ruthian Clout for the Grand Old Game

TIMES TELEVISION CRITIC

Now that the baseball season has ended, it's time to talk . . . baseball.

To use sportsspeak , "Forever Baseball" can do it all. Airing at 9 tonight on Channels 28 and 15 as part of "The American Experience" on PBS, it's the Babe Ruth or Willie Mays of its genre, arguably the best TV program on baseball ever.

And, happily, it offers not a single word from a modern player, manager or owner. That comes during the season.

After the World Series was interrupted by the Bay Area's recent devastating earthquake, the common refrain was: "This puts baseball in context." Wrong. This program puts baseball in context--a lyrical, exhilarating hour using wonderful bits of history, old clips and insights from literati to show the game's uniqueness in American culture.

Television not only has dramatically changed the economic structure of baseball but also has made players seem less heroic through constant exposure. But the game's essence remains unaltered.

Baseball is more than America's enduring cliche; it's also America's song. The crack of the bat can't be described or explained, it must be heard. And it has been heard for 150 years. Producer-writer-narrator Irv Drasnin dusts off a quote: "I see great things in baseball. It's our game--the American game." The words are Walt Whitman's.

When troops from the North and South weren't fighting the Civil War, they sometimes played baseball. When Custer was being annihilated, somewhere else in America people were playing baseball.

It's this historical view--and the perception of baseball as the nation's common denominator--that makes Drasnin's video essay an upper-deck shot that clears the bases.

We see baseball as symbolic: It starts in the spring, a time for renewal. Baseball is now universal, not only geographically, but demographically: "Hit it right" applies to performance in all areas of life. There is also the learned baseball behavior, ingrained since youth. As Drasnin notes: "There is a way to talk, a way to stand, a way to move, and when the ball comes at you, a way to make it look easy." Yes, and we daydream about it throughout our lives.

Baseball transcends age. Painter Ralph Fasanella, 75, on his newspaper priorities: "This morning there are two important things, Poland and China, but I gotta go to baseball first."

The game transcends gender. Journalist-historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, on absorbing baseball from her father, for whom she kept score on Brooklyn Dodgers games: "I felt like I was learning the wisdom of the ages from him."

Big-time baseball didn't always transcend race, however; indeed, it was a metaphor for segregation, as Drasnin recalls in an insightful sequence comparing the fortunes of Bob Feller and Satchel Paige.

There is extraordinary archival footage here, too--of the 1905 Giants, of the Babe demonstrating his swing to young players, of Lou Gehrig playing a cowboy in a movie.

Most of all, "Forever Baseball" defines a game that is hopeful, a game whose finality, unlike basketball and football, is not governed by a clock, a game that offers the possibility of miracles along with heartbreak.

What grand stuff, a program that hits it right. Break out the Cracker Jack.

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