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Buy Me Some Peanuts, Cracker Jack and a Cushy Time Slot After "Doug"

Back in the heady days of my youth, when I still had dreams of replacing boyhood hero Dusty Baker as the starting leftfielder for the Los Angeles Dodgers, there were few greater thrills for me on Saturday morning television than The Baseball Bunch. Harder hitting than The Smurfs, more relevant than Hong Kong Phooey, The Baseball Bunch took perhaps the two most important things in any young man's life -- arcane points of baseball fundamentals and wacky pratfalls -- and combined them into one beautiful half-hour.

The show's concept was brilliantly simple: Each week a ragtag bunch of youngsters would head down to the local baseball diamond where they'd get schooled on the finer points of the game by Hall of Famer and spray paint pitchman Johnny Bench. And, in between lessons on hitting the cutoff man and laying down a sacrifice bunt, the San Diego Chicken would come along to amuse the children with his special brand of buffoonery. He'd spill a bucket of balls all over the field or trip while rounding third base, as Johnny just shook his head sadly. Cesar Geronimo and the rest of the Big Red Machine never pulled this kind of crap, Johnny's exasperated look seemed to say.

It was a laughable premise, of course. Hall of Fame catchers simply do not hang around local baseball diamonds offering tips to whatever ragamuffins happen to be within earshot. And if a man in a chicken suit is lingering around your children, best call the local authorities immediately. But believability be damned -- Baseball Bunch was an entertaining and informative romp that fostered my love of the game.

Alas, poor depth perception and worse reflexes doomed my nascent baseball career. And neither tips from the great Johnny Bench nor tomfoolery from the San Diego Chicken could do much toward reviving it.

Still, The Baseball Bunch instilled in me an understanding of the game and its basic principles of teamwork and fair play so that when I go to a baseball game and imported pitcher Hideki Irabu fails to cover first base on a routine infielder grounder, I can confidently shout out, "Foolish Irabu! Clearly you forget the lesson imparted by Johnny Bench in The Baseball Bunch where he explicitly instructs pitchers on when and where they should back-up their infielders. Unless, of course, they never got around to exporting The Baseball Bunch over to Japan, in which case your unfamiliarity with the program is perfectly understandable, though you should have still covered first. You fat ass."

The reason I bring this up is not because of some horrible, Hideki Irabu-induced flashback. Rather, it's the announcement that a new cartoon will debut next spring featuring major league ballplayers.

Helmed by Mitchell Kriegman of Rugrats and Doug fame, the animated series will feature a group of baseball-loving kids who meet various players in each episode. No word on whether the kids and the players will then hop into a funkadelic Dodge van and drive around the country solving mysteries. But you can always hope.

More likely, the show will feature Major Leaguers imparting their collective wisdom upon their animated charges -- words of advice about being a winner on the field and off. Ken Griffey Jr. talking about the importance of hustle. Cal Ripken on the virtues of hard work. Sammy Sosa on sportsmanship and so on.

Well, that's all well and good. But I hope the producers of the unnamed baseball animation project don't turn their back on the rest of baseball's galaxy of stars. Think of the possible episodes....

  • "If They Don't Win, It's Really A Shame" -- All-time hit leader Pete Rose reaches into his bag of tricks to teach the youngsters the keys to have a high batting average, a winning attitude and a successful gambling habit.

    "My secret?" Rose tells the wide-eyed kids. "Parlays."

    Later, Rose schools the bunch on the importance of sliding by recreating his memorable slide from the 1970 All Star Game with the help of old friend Ray Fosse. Again and again, Rose slides into the withered and ravaged knees of Fosse as the ex-Oakland Athletic begs Charlie Hustle for mercy.

    "Mercy is for losers," Rose says with a wink.

  • "Don't Get Mad... Get Even" -- When Billy, the irrepressible joker of the bunch, hot dogs it after a home run, the rest of the gang wants to show him what for. But hard-throwing Jaret Wright of the Cleveland Indians teaches the team the best way to bring a showboat in line: A screaming fastball aimed right at his jawbone.

    "When his vision stops blurring, Billy will thank us for this lesson in sportsmanship," Wright says.

  • "Eight Strikes And You're Out... Sometimes" -- The gang gets an important lesson on second chances when special guest star Steve Howe proves a lifetime suspension doesn't mean you're out of the game.

    "Mr. Howe, is that box of powder you're holding to help us lay down foul lines on the field?" asks Kenny, the scrappy shortstop.

    "Sure, kid," Howe says with a sheepish grin. "That's exactly what it's for."

  • "Our Friend, Albert" -- It's a special treat for the kids when they spy Baltimore Orioles superstar Albert Belle practicing at their very own diamond.

    "Mr. Belle," Spanky asks the all-star slugger, "will you teach us the secret of your home-run swing?"

    "Fuck you, kids," says Belle, who spends the rest of the show silently glowering at the camera.

  • "The Greatest Show Ever" -- In this season cliff-hanger, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa are showing the gang the secret to smacking dingers every time they're at the plate when Commissioner Bud Selig runs on to the field to announce that the owners have imposed a lockout.

    "Show's over, kids," Selig says with a grin. "But we'll be back next year. Maybe."


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