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Already, baseball has reasserted its rhythm and tempo upon those of us who call ourselves baseball fans. Each year, it seems a little more amazing that we have survived for months without something that now seems so essential. The persistent and echoing cracks and pops of batting practice, the slow building of tension between pitcher and hitter when men are on base, the relaxed but involved hum of the grandstand between innings: baseball has returned as it has every spring this century, and it remains, as it has every year, for the most part unchanged in spite of the layoff. In fact, Chicago baseball fans were saying, on both north and south sides last week, that it sometimes seemed that nothing at all had changed, that we were in for the same long summers we spent outdoors last year. The first time I felt baseball reasserting itself upon me was during batting practice at Wrigley Field on opening day a week ago last Tuesday, and the second time came soon after, when, in the Saint Louis Cardinals' part of the third, Rick Sutcliffe lost all control over his pitches and we began one of those long, frustrating innings so familiar from last year. The White Sox home opener, a week ago, was similarly familiar. Yes, baseball is back, and little seems changed, and in that we partially refer to its traditions -- and partially to the teams themselves.

Baseball fans are, I believe, compulsive by nature. Not only do we remember batting averages and victory totals going back to the dark ages, but we like the game's constancy, its resistance to change, even though we may gripe about the same quality played out to its illogical extremes by baseball's ownership. There are some relatively new changes in the game that we have grown used to just as we've grown used to seatbelt buzzers in automobiles: I still can't get over the marching bands the White Sox invite to play on the field before big games, and their two "mascots" continue to annoy even though I expect them and have grown somewhat accustomed to them. Yet, the largest, most traumatic change in the first few days of the season was also perhaps the most minute: the Cubs have changed their scorecards.

The Cubs scorecard was one of the models of small perfection. It was simple and clean, a single slab of heavy cardboard paper folded over on itself, with the numbers of the Cubs and the opposition inside, the umpires' numbers in a corner, and a concise guide to the numbering, from one to ten, of the pitchers on every other staff in the majors, so that the scoreboard could be deciphered to see who was pitching and whether any other teams were rallying or struggling even before the score for any certain inning was posted (e.g., "The Giants have been out for a long time in the seventh and the Dodgers have yanked Valenzuela and brought in Niedenfuer"). These elements of the scorecard have not changed. Meanwhile, during the Wrigley era, the cover of the scorecard bore inventive and uniquely stylized baseball drawings, some of which remain aesthetically pleasing today; they can be found at any of a number of nostalgia shops. Those went out sometime during the late 70s, I believe, replaced by action photos that are displeasing only because they aren't what used to be there, and to most people's minds they're not as nice to look at. The latest change in the scorecard, however, is an aberration: the Cubs have set up a grid pattern within the scorecard boxes, imposing their own system of scoring on any and all fans.

Baseball scoring is one of the great arts of the game. No two fans do it alike; most learn from their fathers and insist their way is best. My father taught me on one of those original Wrigley scorecards with a drawing on the cover, tracing the path of the base runner in a diamond within the box, coloring in the gaps between the border of the box and the diamond within whenever the batter got on base with a hit. Batters getting on base by a walk or a fielder's choice or an error were noticeable because they broke up the numbers in the other boxes, but batters getting hits jumped out, with their dark coloring, and a home run demanded attention: a clear, small diamond in the middle containing the field the homer was hit to, surrounded by a dark, penciled-in border that filled out the box. The Cubs, by including the grid pattern in the box, inflict their boring and more conventional scoring system -- in which one simply writes what the batter did, rather than tracing his path -- on all fans. In addition, they removed one of the totals columns on the right, so that anyone keeping track of pitches now must hope the teams don't go through the order more than four times. This sort of thing may seem persnickety to persons who are not baseball fans, or to less avid baseball fans (or simply to less compulsive baseball fans), but I assure you it caused me no small grief, mainly because something perfect has been sullied and there's no small way to get around it. I just scored the same way I always had, writing right over the grid, but in the end the card looked like hell.

Changes on the field this year are less traumatic but certainly will have more effect on the teams. The White Sox have new uniforms, ditching the newfangled threads (in which they won the division in 1983, for those superstitious fans out there) for something more traditional, but not as traditional as Mary Frances Veeck's black-and-white, shirttail-untucked style of the late 70s. They look fairly elegant, although the consensus seems to be that the cap isn't up to the class of the rest of the uniform. The Sox began their season on the official opening day of the sport, a week ago last Monday, with Richard Dotson on the mound. The assignment was perfect: Dotson symbolizes the entire White Sox pitching staff in that he is a pitcher full of ability but in some way suspect. An arm operation a couple of years ago turned Dotson from a Cy Young candidate into a 10-17 pitcher with a 5.48 ERA last year. This year, he has put on more weight beneath his waist; he seems, like Tom Seaver, to be moving toward a motion where the legs play the greater part in giving him the oomph that a major leaguer ought to have on his fastball. Against the Kansas City Royals, he gave up a run in the first inning -- he allowed 22 in 34 starts over last season -- then settled down and threw some of the best smoke I've seen him throw since the operation. He looked good and the Sox won going away, with Bobby Thigpen setting up Bob James for the save -- a double dose of heat the Sox are banking on.

On opening day here, however, Sox fans got a jolt. Harold Baines was introduced, and humped himself up to the playing field from the dugout on crutches. He had undergone knee surgery the previous day and is out for perhaps two months. Without Baines, the Sox attack is anemic, and the Detroit Tigers went about proving that right away, holding the Sox to six runs in sweeping a three-game series. In the opener, Frank Tanana, a sore-armed, soft-throwing pitcher, tied the Sox in knots, while Neil Allen, one of the three Sox pitching head-cases (Floyd Bannister and Jose DeLeon being the much more reliable but almost equally fragile others), didn't get to the third inning. Without Baines, this looks like a potentially disastrous season for the Chisox.

The Cubs, meanwhile, look healthy. Rick Sutcliffe looks strong if not trim; he left in the third inning on opening day, then returned to the mound on three days' rest and beat the Philadelphia Phillies last weekend, so the jury's still out on the Cubs' ace. Keith Moreland looks as if he misses the work out in the outfield, but at his new position, third base, speed is even less a concern than in right field, so no one is worried. No, the Cubs as a whole look healthy; their great improvement, however, comes from outside last year's team -- Andre Dawson.

Dawson is an amazing player: the shoulders of a football player perch high above the waist of a ballet dancer, and the amazing thing is the way these seemingly misconnected forms work together in hitting a baseball. His shoulders, which seemed wide when he played for the Montreal Expos, seem even wider in the dark-blue Cubs warm-up jersey. When hitting, they line up pointing straight at the pitcher, then, in an instant, swing perpendicular. They twist on the fine fulcrum of his waist the same way every time, from parallel to perpendicular, position A to position B, the same again and again, and the balls spray to all fields. Cardinal manager Whitey Herzog, standing nearby, squinting so that eyes seem buried somewhere deep in his mind, said, "Never seen him take a bad swing," and it's no wonder. Dawson rarely lunges at the ball because he can't; he's so top heavy, if he ever lost his balance he'd probably jam one of those shoulders in the ground and dig up a ditch in the left-hand batter's box. His swing is nearly the same every time, almost industrial in its precision, military in its power. When he cruises around the bases after hitting a home run -- as he did in the Cubs' second game, last Thursday -- his shoulders ride above his waist the way the bridge of a battleship rises above its seemingly thin hull. His home runs, however, look better on the field than they do on the scorecard.

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