FOR PETE'S SAKE, PLAY BALL! The talk of baseball's future is of lockouts and walkouts, of realigned divisions, -restructured playoffs and reduced revenues. Congressional hearings have just begun to determine the sanctity of baseball's antitrust exemption. But when the season opens this week it will be business, or at least play, as usual. "The game, at least the one played on the field, survives," says Dave Dombrowski, executive vice president and general manager of the new Florida Marlins, one of two new National League expansion teams starting play this year.
Last week the boys of spring were bouncing back from the tragic deaths of Cleveland Indian pitchers Steve Olin and Tim Crews, killed in a boating accident on Little Lake Nellie in Florida. If the news that Crews was legally drunk ignited talk radio elsewhere, on the Florida ball fields you didn't hear much about it. What you heard was guys talking about baseball-about Fernando Valenzuela's screwball, about George Brett's new batting stance and newborn son. At Baseball City Stadium last Thursday, two hours before the Kansas City Royals met the Cincinnati Reds, the players were edgy, restless to get on with the real show. "The spring's been fun," said Royals pitcher David Cone, "but I can't wait to begin the season."
And what more traditional prelude to the season than a host of big-name free agents moving to new cities? National League MVP Barry Bonds has taken his heart, his huge talent and his giant ego to San Francisco. Wade Boggs, after 11 seasons and five batting crowns in Boston, dons the pinstripes of the Red Sox's archrival New York Yankees. And pitching ace Greg Maddux joins the Atlanta Braves-a classic case of bringing coals to Newcastle-giving the defending National League champs baseball's best starting rotation in more than two decades.
If there's an early story line developing for the 1993 season, it's the Year of the Comeback. Appropriately enough, in a sport where off-field machinations too often overshadow on-field glories, the most publicized comeback has been that of a nonplayer. Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, who in 1990 was suspended from baseball for secretly putting a professional gambler on his payroll, returns to a talented, young team rebuilt during his banishment. Steinbrenner appears to have mellowed-he's been back a month without firing anyone.
The most inspiring comeback is Bo Jackson's, which Chicago White Sox executive Ron Schueler has called a "minor miracle." A year ago Bo underwent hip-replacement surgery that, baseball and medical experts alike said, marked the end of his career. However, this spring he hit over.300, fielded two positions and --even with a slight hitch in his step-made the Sox's roster. This might seem a joyous occasion for Jackson, one he'd exult to the mob of reporters who swarm his locker after every practice to ask him the exact same questions. But Bo is annoyed. "I'm not doing this' cause someone said I couldn't do it," he says. "I'm not doing it for the money' cause I don't need it. I'm doing it for love of the game."
Although their comebacks might not rate miracle status, a couple of other former all-stars have resurrected careers that appeared finished. Kirk Gibson is best remembered as the battered hero of the Dodgers' 1988 championship. In his one at-bat in the '88 Series, he hit a gamewinning home run, then could barely circle the bases. Gibson hasn't played since Pittsburgh released him last May. This spring, at 35, he has been hitting over .400 and romping around the outfield for his original ball club, the Detroit Tigers.
No less impressive is Valenzuela's re-emergence from the Mexican League. Fernando even created a mania in 1981, as a 20-year-old rookie, when he won the Cy Young Award as the National League's top pitcher. But his last winning season was 1986, and his last comeback attempt, with the California Angels in 1991, was an embarrassment. True fans were mortified by the prospect of another debacle. But this time around with the Orioles, Valenzuela gave up no runs in his first five appearances, and Baltimore fans could be enjoying Fernandomania with their crab cakes this season.
However, the most intriguing comeback of all may be that of a ballplayer who was never quite here in the first place. Orestes Destrade spent nine seasons in the minors with the Yankees and the Pirates, earning himself all of 66 at-bats in the majors. A dispirited Destrade took his act to Japan, where he led the league in homers three years running and took his team, the Seibu Lions, to three championships.
Now Destrade, who is Cuban-born and Miami-raised, has come home to play for the Marlins-a 30-year-old rookie and a ready-made hero for Miami's baseball-mad Latino community. In his first exhibition appearance in neighboring Ft. Lauderdale, fans greeted every appearance by the strapping, 6-foot-4, 230-pounder with shouts of "O!" "I guess I could have stayed in Japan and gone on to cult status after a while," says Destrade, who took a pay cut to play for Florida. "But to come back and play in my hometown is the best of all worlds."
Destrade is not your average rookie, no more than he was a typical gaijin in Japan. "A lot of American ballplayers get to Japan and fight the system because they find it so strange," says Destrade, who combines an athletic bearing with the gentle demeanor of a schoolteacher. "But if you want to be successful there you conform." He learned some Japanese and even finds himself in some ways "thinking and acting Japanese." "Like politeness," he explains.
America will likely recover from the shock of a polite ballplayer. At the very least the Marlins seem aware of what a treasure they have. "Orestes is an asset to his culture, his community, to mankind as a whole," exults Marlins hitting coach Doug Rader. Welcome home, Orestes. Right now baseball needs you-and every other asset it can possibly find.