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Tracking Down the Don

By Dan S. Aibel

It's a self-evident fact that interleague play, beginning later this baseball season, is a terrible thing for the Major Leagues. If the Chicago Cubs and White Sox have to wait 'til 2341 to be opponents in the World Series, then that's how long it should be 'til they play each other. End of story.

Interleague play weakens divisional rivalries. It cheapens the World Series. And as Professor of History William E. Gienapp wrote to me in an e-mail, it occurs "at the expense of fair competition...and the game's integrity." It is, in short, offensive, sacrilegious and quite possibly immoral.

But all that said, interleague play presents a real dilemma to, say, a diehard Mets fan: Should I launch a grassroots national boycott of interleague games? Should I run out and buy tickets for the June 16 meeting between the Mets and Yankees?

The interesting and disturbing fact that the advent of interleague play points to--a fact that owners are banking on--is that sometimes people want things they know they'd be better off without. Like the third "Godfather" film, super-sized fries and crack-cocaine, interleague play is an obviously bad idea, and yet one for which there is tremendous demand.

In fact, some of the most ardent critics of intermingling American and National League teams before the World Series--myself included--will find themselves marching down to the ballpark to watch the absurdity unfold.

And they will do this for the same reason they root their teams onto the "wild card" spot in the playoffs, for the same reason they continued to watch every moment of "L.A. Law" in its dismal final season. They will do this because as true devotees, they have deep attachments to the object of their devotion, the kinds of attachments that refuse to be undermined by subtle corruptions. When you're a real fan, a tainted product is almost always better than no product at all; if the Mets are going to play the Yankees and it's going to count, I might as well be there.

I grow frustrated thinking about the Catch-22 that being a serious baseball fan has become, so I decide to try to track down one man I'm sure will understand my gripes. At 66, Don Zimmer is entering his 48th year in professional baseball and has become a kind of elder statesman of the game. Zimmer's had a first hand look at the rise of free agency, the inauguration of night games at Wrigley Field, the introduction of divisional play and the institution of the designated hitter. The one-time player, coach and manager is currently the bench coach for the New York Yankees.

I'm dying to hear Zimmer's thoughts on the game's decay, what it means to be a bench coach, and why 46 years ago he married his high school sweetheart on a baseball diamond of all places.

So I resolve to call the Yankees. I hunt down a phone number, and soon I'm talking to a man in the team's media relations office. I begin to explain my interest in a few minutes of phone time with Zimmer, but the guy cuts me off. They only take faxed requests, he says, and immediately his tone tells me that I'm not the first person to call about scheduling an interview. Once he receives my fax, he explains, he'll forward it to the media liaison who is on the road with the team in Seattle.

I thank him and hang up, chalking up his curtness to the fact that I'm calling on the eve of Opening Day. Then I type up a short formal note on Crimson letterhead, stressing the large size of the paper's readership and the extraordinarily high esteem in which it is held by students, Cantabrigians and alumni alike. I request that someone call or e-mail me as soon as it is known whether Zimmer can find five or ten minutes during the week for an interview.

But late in the week I still haven't heard anything. So I call again. A young woman answers and I ask her if they received my fax. She digs it up and starts reading it back to me, but when she gets to my request that the interview happen by Friday, she sounds perplexed. "But they're in Seattle," she protests. There's no percentage in denying this, I decide, so I concede the point. "But couldn't he talk to me on the phone from Seattle?" I ask, and she admits that this is not impossible. I remind her of my desire to be told one way or the other as soon as my request is reviewed, and then hang up.

I never do hear back from the Yankees.

Yet I can't help but think that even if I am only a columnist from a puny college paper, Zimmer isn't so busy coaching the bench that he couldn't find time to talk to me. And I'm almost positive he would have enjoyed telling me the story of his baseball wedding almost as much as I would have enjoyed hearing about it.

Whether there is any validity to the idea I don't know, but it's awfully tempting to interpret the treatment I receive from the Yankees as yet another example of baseball giving the little guy no respect, as one more sign of the swirl of problems that the game's trustees have created for themselves. "In the present...climate, these problems cannot be solved," Gienapp tells me in his e-mail. "Baseball's decline as a national sport will simply continue. It is no longer America's pastime or the national game, and it never will be again."

Dan S. Aibel's column appears on alternate Tuesday.

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