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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

While researching and writing his first draft of the Oscar-winning film “Gladiator,” screenwriter-producer David Franzoni noticed some odd similarities to the world of baseball. “A popular gladiator could become very wealthy and might even do product endorsements,” says Franzoni. “For instance, he might have his fresco painted on an olive importer’s merchant ships so Roman folk could say, ‘There’s the Brute of Burbank and he drinks Yahoo olive oil.’ ”

But there are also striking differences. “The Romans had a particular national identity,” he says. “They were unbelievably tough, and the game that celebrated their national psyche was violent to prove it.”

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Though the Colosseum’s main event no longer plays to packed crowds, baseball has claimed its title as this era’s longest-running arena sport. As a screenwriter who has spent the last year researching and writing a baseball movie, I’ve often speculated on what America’s game says about our national psyche. Opening day may hold a clue.

Whether it be Hollywood films, Broadway plays or the start of the TV season, Americans love grand openings. So it is only fitting that our national pastime have some of the grandest.

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Stadiums throughout the country are dressed in their best bunting, as if the very seats are excited about the pending season. Grounds crews are polishing their fields’ diamond stages, gracing their centers with mounds of dirt spotlight. As tickets are sold and final touches are placed on pregame festivities, to many of us it seems clear baseball is among the best entertainments.

Boston’s Pedro Martinez, this planet’s most dominating pitcher, thinks the reasons are as plentiful as his array of pitches: “It’s a game that uses all of your skills, mentally, physically, spiritually, but you can’t win it by relying on just one man. It takes teamwork. It’s a very fun game, but it’s never predictable.”

For Dodgers General Manager Kevin Malone, opening days are packed with potential. “It’s the culmination of all your hard work. It’s almost like having a baby, in that it’s a new beginning. You’ll never pass this way again.”

“There’s a big crowd out there, and we all want to get off to a good start,” says Diamondbacks outfielder Luis Gonzalez. It’s enough to give a seasoned pro stage fright. “It’s like the first day of Little League,” says Dodgers outfielder Shawn Green. “You feel the same way you did when you were 11. You have butterflies and you can’t wait to get your first hit.”

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And that’s not always easy to do. “You have to go up there with the mentality that it’s just like any other at-bat,” says the Angels’ Darin Erstad, and he ought to know. For his hitting and fielding prowess last season he won both the Silver Slugger and Gold Glove awards--the sword and shield of a star attraction.

His opening-day strategy begins with the last days of spring training. “You have to approach those games like they’re regular season games,” Erstad says. “That way you don’t feel like you’re thrown in the fire.”

This weekend, the Angels and Dodgers play their final exhibitions at their home parks, giving fans a chance to see those dress rehearsals. Derrick Hall, Dodgers senior vice president of communications, points out that the previews are also a final casting call. “There’s still players trying desperately to make the team, and that’ll be their last chance to prove themselves to the fans and coaching staff.”

But when opening day dawns, excitement is inevitable, whether it’s a new call-up or a slam-dunk future Hall of Famer, like the Padres’ Tony Gwynn. “I still get chills,” says Gwynn, who will be honored at his home opener in celebration of his 20th year in the majors. “I don’t think I’ve ever swung at the first pitch in my first at-bat, and I don’t think that’ll change because I’ll be trying to calm down. But after that first pitch, boom! The game just kicks in.” But he’ll still keep an amused eye on the rookies. “They’re pacing up and down, trying to hit balls 9 miles in batting practice. It’s fun watching what they go through.”

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“Your first opening day you’re kind of scared,” says Jose Tolentino, a former major league first baseman, now the Spanish-language radio analyst for the Angels on XPRS-AM (1090). “If you don’t love the game, it’s just like any other day. But if you do, you have to make sure your feelings don’t overwhelm you. You can enjoy it and say, ‘I’m a blessed person because I get to wear a major league uniform and play baseball.’ ”

Like the Angels, many teams will spend opening day on the road, some visiting other teams’ home openers before they can enjoy their own. But in an age of free-agent musical ballclubs, coming home isn’t always easy. “It’s a little nerve-racking going to a new town because you don’t know how you’ll be accepted,” says Boston’s agile infielder Craig Grebeck. “For me, being able to play behind Pedro as opposed to facing him is the best thing about it.”

With the new season come new hopes of a fresh start for everyone. “Opening day on the road means a lot, too, because you know their crowd’s behind them,” says Dodgers outfielder Gary Sheffield. “When you’re at home, you get the adrenaline going and you’re ready to produce for your crowd.”

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“Like the gladiatorial contests, baseball is a mano a mano thing between the pitcher and batter,” says Franzoni. “The fastest thrower and hardest hitter have to face each other, and one will triumph.” In addition to the velocity of pitches, location, movement and changing speeds are all potential weapons in a pitcher’s arsenal. How a batter adjusts to them and then makes the pitcher adjust dictates who will be victorious.

But on a day of marquee match-ups, all aces have something in common. “Being chosen to pitch that game in my opinion means that your team feels that you are their best starting pitcher,” says Diamondbacks fireballer Curt Schilling. “I always felt privileged when I was the opening-day starter.”

For Martinez, “it’s your first opportunity to show what you’re going to look like during the season.” For others, it’s a tribute to their careers. Such was the case with Dodgers icon Orel Hershiser, who was given the ball last year. “It was absolutely amazing to come back to Los Angeles at the age of 42 and pitch that opening game,” says Hershiser. “It was the first win in the new millennium in Dodger Stadium and ended up being my last win in the big leagues. It couldn’t have been scripted any better.”

Now Hershiser is a rookie again, as an analyst for ESPN. For his first outing, he’ll call the opening-day game of Atlanta versus Cincinnati, in which Greg Maddux is expected to duel Pete Harnisch.

The Dodgers’ Kevin Brown, who will miss this year’s opening day with an injury, has been there before. “It’s a true rush walking to the mound for the first pitch of the season with 56,000 excited fans welcoming you back,” says Brown. “You have to learn to control the extra adrenaline.”

“He doesn’t need any extra adrenaline,” jokes Bob Apodaca, the Brewers pitching coach, considered among the best. “He’s just one of those special athletes that rises to these occasions.” Facing the Dodgers will be the Brewers’ Jeff D’Amico. “He’s our Greg Maddux, in that he has impeccable control,” says Apodaca.

“Opening days are always good match-ups,’ says Gwynn. ‘But the bottom line is on any given day you could throw anybody out there and anybody could beat anybody. That’s the beauty of baseball.”

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“Some of the ancient descriptions of Roman fans talk about a sort of ‘Dodgers wave,’ ” says Franzoni, “where they would raise their arms in a way that spread around the entire Colosseum.”

The Dodgers’ opening-day spectacular will include flyovers, fireworks, Hall of Fame cameos and a Navy SEAL who will parachute in with the first ball while players take the field with their families.

“The Dodgers are very family-oriented,” says Hall, “and we’ve realized that women make a lot of the entertainment decisions for their families.” The observation is backed by a major league baseball survey that found that 46% of the average crowd at games were women. Studies show that single women choose the films to see on dates, married women choose outings for families, and when women in either category choose sports, they choose baseball.

To market the game to them, a major league baseball memo to ballclubs suggested stocking T-shirts in elegant colors with smaller logos, as if admitting men have no taste.

Women’s interest in the game doesn’t surprise Penny Marshall, a lifelong fan who directed “A League of Their Own.” The hit film proved women could play as well as watch and men and women would pay to see it. “It told parents you don’t have to be afraid to throw a ball to little girls,” says Marshall. “You’re not going to ruin them for life.”

“It’s something that you grew up doing with your family at the backyard get-togethers,” says Erstad. “It just seems like a ball and bat were always involved and in some little way it’s all connected. It’s a bond people have with the game, and it’s a very sacred thing.”

It’s a bond Marshall wanted to capture on film, but her Czechoslovakian cinematographer had never seen a baseball game, so she took him to one. After taking in a few innings, he had an epiphany: “Ah--it’s an American picnic.”

For Lowell Ganz, who wrote the screenplay with Babaloo Mandel, baseball has been an obsession since early childhood. “I always liked the fact that it was its own world. It’s like when you’re a kid, you make up pretend parallel worlds that don’t actually exist. Well, this one actually does.” And, according to their script, it’s a world in which there’s no crying.

“We weren’t looking for catch-phrases,” says Mandel, “but ‘There’s no crying in baseball’ just hit a chord.” Now Marshall is having second thoughts. She points to Yankees manager Joe Torre, whose eyes welled up while being carried off the field after last season’s World Series victory. “It’s so wonderful that he wins and looks toward his family. It’s a very moving game,” says Marshall.

“It’s also a very clean game,” says Martinez. “It’s not as violent as others.” Unlike hockey, the players get to keep their teeth “unless someone charges the mound and breaks them,” he says.

Baseball could see more brawls this season because of the game’s new strike zone, which sacrifices the low and away strike in favor of one up and in, which could mean more pitches at head level. It’s bound to offend those sensitive sluggers who crowd the plate while wearing enough body armor to make Maximus look naked.

But no matter how baseball evolves, fun for the fans is foremost in its plans. While the Dodgers ask theirs to “Think Blue,” the Angels have a rally monkey. “It was this clapping monkey that they flashed on the scoreboard once that just caught on,” says Angels hitting coach Mickey Hatcher.

But to the Angels, Hatcher may be the real rally monkey. “He keeps us loose,” says Erstad. “Making it fun for the fans is important, too,” says Hatcher. “When you’re hearing them laugh and have a good time--that’s what baseball’s all about.”

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“The Colosseum was a big part of the political structure of Rome,” says Franzoni. “If a senator wanted to get elected, he’d throw a good gladiator fight.”

Years ago, the Washington Senators of the American League had what was known as the presidential opener. Their announcer, Hall of Fame broadcaster Bob Wolff, remembers: “Having the president throw out the first pitch gave the game added national significance. Was he eating a hot dog or asking for peanuts? Did he get up and applaud? It was all part of the game.”

Wolff’s favorite perk of the presidential opener was that the game was played a day before all others. “If they won, it would be the only time all year I could yell, ‘Washington leads league!’ By the second game we had dropped to .500, and by the third game we were plummeting downward.”

This year, to showcase baseball’s international popularity, Texas meets Toronto in Puerto Rico on Sunday on ESPN, with the other teams opening on Monday. President Bush will throw out the first pitch in Milwaukee when the Brewers open their new stadium April 6. What he eats remains to be seen.

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“Have you ever seen anything like that before?” asks Djimon Hounsou as one of the movie’s gladiators, getting his first glimpse of the Colosseum. “I didn’t know man could build such things.” As he looks up in awe, it’s hard not to notice the Ebbets Field-like rows of arches rimmed with small flags--like the ones of major league teams. It could be any baseball stadium in the country.

“Baseball is by far the most social of all sports,” says Wolff. " It’s designed for the mental fun of trying to guess what’s going to happen next and watching the excitement as it unfolds.”

“This game’s all in your head,” says Mike Mussina, the newest Yankee pitcher. And that’s where a lot of it’s played.

“The cerebral side is my favorite part of it,” says Gwynn. “People talk about how athletic the players are, their strength and speed, but it’s also a game which you can be very successful at if you use your head. It’s called ‘baseball instinct.’ If you’ve got it, it stands out, and if you don’t, it stands out, and that’s what I’m telling my son right now.”

“There are so many different levels and there is no definitive answer to strategy at any of those levels,” says Schilling. Yet it can be enjoyed by fans on all levels and, adds Ganz, “it’s a great place to throw around a beach ball.”

“It’s a great sport for what it used to be, sitting on a hillside, watching a game, just enjoying life,” says Wolff. “In baseball, one more guy, one more pitcher, one more hitter can make all the difference in the world. Every team has great players. The team that wins just has more of them.”

But “on opening day, everybody starts even,” says Mets first base coach Mookie Wilson. It’s a time of optimism when, after the desert of spring training, the mirage of a World Series ring beckons at the end of a summer haze.

“They dress up the ballpark, planes fly overhead, the band’s playing, and the next day you find out who’s who,” says Gwynn. “The second day, you’re lucky if you get 15,000 people, and those are your core fans who love baseball. I’m more of a second-day kind of guy. I just live to play the game, period.” It’s players like Gwynn, retaining their dignity while soaring to great heights, who inspire fans to baseball films and ballparks.

“There are great players and they’ve overcome such obstacles, whether it’s their upbringing, disease or against all odds,” says Marshall. “Whether they’re underdogs or champions, they do something wonderful that is so etched in your mind. There’s so much bad stuff that something that is positive and has heroic content is very moving. We need that to look up to.”

Perhaps that is why baseball is America’s game. It celebrates the best part of us: the cerebral part, the adrenaline rush, the sacred bonds, the heroic and social, the summer sun after winter’s shadows, when generations touch through time at an American picnic and individuals shine brightest in the triumph of their teams. Its unending layers are the source of its universal appeal.

“Baseball is more than a game. There are games within a game. It can be a science. Yet it is so simple. Kids like it for the simplicity. Adults like it for the complexities,” says the Astros’ All-Star catcher, Brad Ausmus. “Baseball is a beautiful sunny day at the ballpark. It is an autograph on a ticket stub. It is the green grass in the middle of a concrete city, and it is the echoing crack of hardwood hitting rawhide. But most of all, baseball is the smiling face of families who spend time together eating hot dogs, drinking Cokes and singing ‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame.’ ”

And there’s no crying--unless you win. Let the games begin.

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Screenwriter Devra Maza’s latest script is called “The Show,” about the first woman in the major leagues. She frequently writes articles about film and baseball.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Game Day

DODGERS

Dodger Stadium,

Los Angeles

* Home exhibitions versus the Rockies, Friday at 7:10 p.m. and Saturday at 1:10 p.m.

* Home opener versus the Brewers, Monday at 1:10 p.m. KTLA-TV and KXTA-AM (1150).

(800) 224-1-HIT or https://www.dodgers.com

*

ANGELS

Edison International Field, Anaheim

*Home exhibition versus the Diamondbacks, Sunday at 1:05 p.m.

*Season opener in Texas on Tuesday at 12:05 p.m. KCAL-TV and KLAC-AM (570).

*Home opener versus the Rangers, April 10 at 7:05 p.m. KLAC-AM (570) (no TV).

(714) 634-2000 or https://angels.mlb.com


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