Baseball, I have come to the conclusion, is a lot like sex. If that doesn't strike you as a particularly original observation, lay aside your adolescent, amorous baserunning memories and consider this: Ever since the players' strike put an abrupt end to the most exciting season in years, fans of America's national pastime have been reduced to seeking in fantasy what they can't hope to get in reality -- in this case, a decent, well-played ball game. All across the country they huddle in their dark, fetid garrets, staring slack-jawed at flickering computer screens, rearranging batting orders, calling hit-and-run plays, and trying to slip electronic curveballs past the likes of Matt Williams and Kirby Puckett.
But, hey, let's be fair. With the 1995 season now seriously in doubt as owners and players haggle over salary caps, who can blame anyone for indulging in a little rotisserie-league wish fulfillment? Certainly not computer software companies, which have taken advantage of baseball's extended dry spell to release two new CD-ROM simulations, ESPN BASEBALL TONIGHT (Sony Imagesoft, CD-ROM for PC, $69.95) and HARDBALL 4 (Accolade, CD-ROM for PC, $59.95). And the difference between them, I'm afraid, is as wide as the gulf between the '62 Mets and the same year's Yankees.
Like those '62 Mets -- with their snazzy new uniforms, grizzled veteran manager, and endearing innocence -- ESPN Baseball Tonight starts out appealingly enough. It begins with a meticulous reproduction of the opening theme and graphics of the prime-time cable show, including digitized clips of authentic baseball action. From there it segues into a series of attractively designed menus, where you get to juggle lineups, arrange out elders, and view endless reams of statistics. Finally, it plunks you down into the shoddiest baseball simulation I've seen, with pixelated generic-looking players; awkward, super uous voice commentary; and a static interface that makes live baseball seem like the invasion of Normandy.
Sheer incompetence aside, the most astonishing thing about ESPN Baseball is that, if you choose all of its installation options, the game dumps a whopping 50 megabytes of data onto your hard drive. It's like having an overweight, overpaid, over-the-hill designated hitter take up residence on your living-room couch.
The disc does have one redeeming quality: It makes a snazzy coaster to set your beer on as you load up HardBall 4, which isn't merely better -- it's in another league entirely. With oversaturated colors, realistic-looking players (cleverly introduced onto the eld in the form of trading cards), and physics that approximate what actually happens on a baseball diamond, the disc affords little room for complaint. (It is odd, however, that teams are identified by city but not by name, the result of Accolade's obtaining a licensing agreement from the Major League Baseball Players Association but not from Major League Baseball.) And, like previous HardBalls, this game offers as anal a selection of managerial and statistical options as could be desired by the dweebiest enthusiast -- ranging all the way from changing a player's name to changing the team's logo pixel by pixel. But let's face it, in the current climate, no baseball computer game will be realistic until there's an option that allows the players to walk off the field in the middle of an inning to renegotiate their contracts.
What's most impressive about HardBall 4 is the voice-over work of Al Michaels, who surely must have surpassed John Madden as the hardest-working broadcaster in multimedia. As he calls 700 players by name, in a variety of play combinations, I can imagine the poor guy locked in a sound booth for weeks on end, begging for a drink of water between ''Hector Fajardo'' and ''Felix Fermin.'' Of course, this makes Michaels' play-by-play sound like those automated phone listings you get when you dial information. But there's no detracting from his technical accomplishment (the announcer in ESPN Baseball Tonight, by contrast, rarely gets more loquacious than ''The right elder steps up to the plate'').
No matter how good HardBall 4 is, though, it's still no substitute for the genuine article. That, unfortunately, is another way baseball is a lot like sex -- and another reason baseball fans are still banking on the '95 season to give them some desperately needed relief. ESPN Baseball Tonight: D HardBall 4: A