Even before the players packed up their gloves and blow-dryers and trooped morosely home, the 1981 baseball season had turned into a punishing scrape of ill feeling and bad nerves. Despite a spirited bolt from the gate by Billy Martin’s Oakland A’s, despite the phenomenal pitching of Dodger rookie Fernando Valenzuela and the dirt-flying hustle of veteran Pete Rose (who the day before the strike tied Stan Musial’s National League hit record at 3630), a cloud of gnats seemed to hover in the air, buzzing with irritation. On the field, managers went to operatic extremes to show up umpires, their tempers bursting like sewer pipes. Billy Martin, a low-flying baseball genius who always looks as if a host of demons were nipping at his ulcers, flipped out so angrily in one game that he hurled scoops of dirt at an ump’s backside—a gesture that belonged more to a school playground than a major league ballpark.
In the stands, the antics were often even hairier. Art Hill, in his devotional memoir of a year spent following the Detroit Tigers, I Don’t Care If I Never Come Back, wrote that seeing Yankee fans up close for the first time was like waking up in a Brazilian jail. He then amended this crack to note that such punk nastiness had spread to every American ballpark, and beyond. When fans sprout fangs, it’s usually the players who suffer the brunt of their fury. Baltimore Oriole pitcher Dennis Martinez was struck on the head by a bottle chucked by a fan in Chicago’s Comiskey Park; Pirate star outfielder Dave Parker, who over the years has been pelted with batteries, bottles, and ice cubes, had the most ominous object of all hurled at him this season: a bullet.
At the last game I attended, a listless, drizzling affair between the Orioles and Yankees, a drunken bruiser a few rows back worked his voice hoarse shouting insults—insults which began the moment he plopped in his seat. “Bobby Brown,” he hooted rawly at the Yankee right-fielder, “crawl back into your muther.” With so many unsavory types roaming about unleashed, small wonder some ballplayers eye the stands with a wary squint. The next missile may have their name on it.
Perhaps the most telling evidence that the fun is leaking out of baseball can be found in the dispatches of the game’s most ardent chronicler, The New Yorker‘s Roger Angell. In seasons past, Angell’s reports have been handsome tributes to the skills and quirks of the players dappled with feathery strokes of lyricism about the open-air allure of the game: the welcoming spread of outfield green, the sound of balls plopping softly into poised gloves. In 1976, however, writing in the aftermath of the owners’ lockup of the spring-training camps, Angell began to get a bit testy. He described all the fuss and bother in the papers about baseball’s financial worries as being as unappetizing as …