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It's just a game.

We hear it all the time from nonbaseball fans as they see us flip past the newspaper's front page to find the box scores. The latest casualty counts in Iraq and Band-Aids for Medicare can wait. We want to find out if Ryan Howard went deep - again - and whether the Cubs clawed their way back to .500 on their West Coast road swing.

You see, we know our national pastime is more than just a way to pass time. Baseball is not our life, but it teaches us about life.

Roger Angell, New Yorker fiction editor and the dean of baseball writers, once said, "Baseball seems to have been invented solely for the purpose of explaining all other things in life."

Don't believe it? Well - with Opening Day looming Sunday - let's look at nine "innings," and you'll discover the beauty hidden behind the bats, the balls and the bases.

First Inning

Cal Ripken plays a record 2,632 consecutive games

The former Baltimore Orioles star collected 431 home runs, 1,695 RBIs and 3,184 hits. He was an All-Star, a Gold Glover, an MVP, a world champion and, come July 29, a Hall of Famer.

But Ripken forever will be remembered for one accomplishment: The Streak. He didn't miss a day of work between May 30, 1982, and Sept. 20, 1998. That's 2,632 consecutive games - a number that ensured his entry into the Hall of Fame. Of course, Ripken's record also put him in the position to amass the other Cooperstown-caliber numbers. The lesson for us . . .

Sometimes just showing up is enough.

If athletes seem larger than life, it's because they are. Few people can run a mile in under 4 minutes or belt a baseball 400 feet. But we all remember - and, sometimes, resent - classmates with perfect attendance or know co-workers who never miss a day on the job and, consequently, make lasting contributions.

Ripken's record resonates with baseball fans and nonfans alike because it is a blue-collar milestone - a tribute to the Everyday Workingman who spends every day working, man.

Second Inning

Jackie Robinson breaks baseball's color barrier

On April 15, 1947, at New York's Ebbets Field, Jackie Robinson brought integration and an exciting brand of play to the Brooklyn Dodgers and the major leagues.

"It was Robinson's style as much as his statistics or his color that made him a star," write Geoffrey Ward and Ken Burns in Baseball: an Illustrated History. "The fast, scrambling style of play Negro Leaguers called 'tricky baseball' had largely been absent from the big leagues since Ty Cobb's day."

Yes, bigots booed Robinson's arrival. But true baseball fans cheered, and the cheering has never stopped. So let's remember to . . .

Celebrate everyone and discriminate against no one.

We may tolerate going to the dentist or waiting at the DMV. But tolerance is not enough when it comes to people. We must applaud diversity, encourage it, embrace it. To do less is worse than a sin.

Third Inning

Teams play the game in fair and foul territory

Baseball is the only major sport that allows - even encourages - participants to make plays out of bounds. However, if, say, a right-fielder recklessly chases a foul ball too far into foul ground, he could land in the stands and on the disabled list. So, courtesy of baseball, comes this word of warning about life . . .

Don't run too far afoul or you could get hurt.

Punching the time clock five minutes late can cost you money, but skipping out early to catch a matinee movie can cost you your job. We all test the limits at times. After all, living on the edge can be invigorating, but it also can be dangerous, even deadly. A motorist who travels 5 mph too fast may wind up in traffic court. A driver who races 50 mph over the speed limit may end up in the morgue.

Fourth Inning

Steve Bartman foils the Cubs' date with destiny

Yes, I'm still bitter, not just about Bartman but also about Tommie Agee, Leon Durham and Will Clark. But seeing a fan with a prime seat down the left-field line spoil the North Siders' World Series bid in 2003 - it doesn't matter whether it was interference or not - is especially galling. Even in the agony of the Cubs' defeat, though, baseball again delivers a lasting lesson . . .

With a great "seat" comes great responsibility.

It happens when you are promoted from the employee's seat to the manager's chair. It happens when you go from being the child in the highchair to the parent on the couch. It happens when a senator shifts from one of 100 seats in a square chamber on Capitol Hill to the only chair that matters in an Oval Office on Pennsylvania Avenue.

As we go through life, we add not only years, but also responsibilities. More is expected of a veteran tax lawyer than a rookie attorney, fresh out of law school.

Of course, greater responsibility brings its rewards. The veteran attorney gets the window office. The young upstart is relegated to the cramped cubicle.

Fifth Inning

Batting .300 is a mark of success

Put another way: Even the best hitters fail 70 percent of the time. Take Henry Aaron. The game's greatest slugger struck out 1,383 times along the way to his record 755 dingers. He walloped homers in 6 percent of his official at-bats and whiffed in 11 percent. But no one would call Hammerin' Hank a failure. So what does this teach us? It's simple . . .

Failing doesn't make you a failure.

Too often, fear of failure keeps us from succeeding. Imagine Aaron or Ruth or Mays afraid to step up to the plate because he stands a better chance of making an out than ripping a hit.

John Grisham's first book, A Time to Kill, reportedly was rejected by more than 20 publishers. Today, the attorney-turned-author's novels are megasellers.

In the movie "Apollo 13," flight director Gene Kranz says, "Failure is not an option." It's a memorable line but a monumental lie. Failure is indeed an option. It has to be; otherwise, we will never succeed.

Sixth Inning

Batters sacrifice to advance teammates

The batter's line in the box score is most telling in what it doesn't tell. It shows the number of official at-bats, runs, hits and RBIs. But it doesn't say when the batter lays a perfect dribbler down the third-base line - and purposely gets thrown out -to advance a teammate into scoring position. In fact, sacrifices aren't even counted as an official at-bat. If not for entries buried farther down in the box score, sacrifice bunts and flies would go unnoted and unnoticed.

Like the sacrifice itself, life's lesson here may be hidden. But it's every bit as real, profound and even religious in nature . . .

True sacrifice requires no recognition.

If you hand over your paycheck to help a flood victim and then brag about it to your family and friends, did you make a sacrifice or merely a donation?

In the New Testament, St. Matthew sheds more light on a truism about altruism: "When thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do . . . that they may have the glory of men."

Sacrifice is selfless only when we care less about self, more about others.

Seventh Inning

Every game pauses for a seventh-inning stretch

Whether it's a spring-training matchup in Bradenton or a World Series showdown in Boston, the game stops before the bottom half of the seventh. Organs play, fans rise and people sing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." By the time they reach for the "peanuts and Cracker Jack," they may notice that this ritual is teaching us to . . .

Work hard and play hard, but never get too busy to take a break.

Vacations and breaks have been employment staples for decades. But today's enlightened workplaces increasingly include nap rooms to help make up for widespread sleep deprivation, which costs U.S. employers billions a year in productivity, according to the National Sleep Foundation.

Studies also show that a little shuteye - about 15 to 20 minutes a day - can do a lot for employee efficiency, productivity and creativity. Turns out, if you don't snooze, you lose.

Eighth Inning

The object of the game is to score runs

Once stat geeks get past the RBIs and the ERAs, the strikeouts and the shutouts, the batting averages and the slugging percentages, baseball is really about one thing: scoring runs by touching home plate. It's the heart of the game and parallels with life . . .

Every day of every week of every month of every year of every lifetime - our main goal is to get home safely.

It's an objective that is profoundly simple yet simply profound: getting home safely. You learn that lesson as a toddler. You test it as a teenager. You preach it as a parent. Everything that matters most revolves around home and family. There is a reason baseball's home plate stands out. It is shaped not like the other bases but, fittingly, like a house. Home truly is where the heart is - in the game and in life.

Ninth Inning

When watching 'Field of Dreams,' men cry and women wonder why

Women who watch sappy films to enjoy a good cry can have Leonardo and Kate in "Titanic." Men will pop in "Field of Dreams" instead.

Don't get me wrong, the film is no "Eight Men Out" or "Bull Durham." And it pales next to Shoeless Joe, the W.P. Kinsella novel on which the film is based.

But Phil Alden Robinson's Oscar-nominated flick about a baseball-loving farmer from Iowa still stands as a diamond gem.

And when Ray Kinsella is asked by his ghost-father if his cornfield- turned-ballfield is heaven, the Kevin Costner character looks at his verdant field, his gleaming home and his happy family and says . . .

"Maybe this is heaven."

And, indeed, maybe it is - home, family, baseball. What more could anyone ask? Walt Whitman was right. "The game of ball is glorious." So is life.

There you have it. Baseball is motivating and liberating. It shows us how to work, how to play and how to rest. It teaches responsibility and resilience. It showcases the beauty of diversity and the necessity of adversity. It is inspired and inspiring.

Not bad - for something that's just a game.