Out of the park

EACH October, as the leaves begin to pile up and the adventurous spend a night in sleeping bags outside sport stadiums (to guarantee the purchase of World Series tickets), I become a baseball fan. More accurately, I become interested enough to follow the scores in the newspaper, to occasionally drop my rake for the television set, often just in time to see a key play, and perhaps even to watch an entire ball-game. But by the time spring training rolls around, I've lost all enthusiasm. It's rarely revived until the leaves once again begin to turn their brilliant gold and red. The oddity is not that baseball doesn't hold my interest for more than a couple of short weeks a year, but that it captures my attention at all. I'm simply not a sports aficionado. In spite of all the publicity given to the real fans who buy season tickets, or who at least tramp down to the ballpark several times a summer, I have a suspicion there are many like myself who hold a brief annual love affair with the game of baseball -- contrary to their fundamental nature! For years I've tried to understand this perplexing phenomenon.

Like most other American boys, I grew up entranced with the game. We all collected cards from bubble gum packages depicting the photographs and statistics of our favorite players. Like our fathers and grandfathers before us, we sat on our front porches trading these cards with as much shrewdness and determination as any Wall Street broker dispatching stocks and bonds worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. And like every other kid in the neighborhood, I too had a leather baseball glove that I kept soft and supple with the appropriate oil.

Across the street was a college where we would go to watch every game of the season and from where we would bring home used (sometimes cracked) bats and scuffed balls to play with on our sandlot diamond. Double-headers were best because there were more innings to watch, and if the gray skies turned to drizzle we would stick it out alone, along with the players' girlfriends, who more often than not were wearing their honeys' letter jackets, and ``ID'' bracelets around an ankle.

As with every other ball team, there was a history of unforgettable plays. One that became so much a part of our memory I couldn't tell you today whether I actually witnessed it involved an outfielder who somersaulted over the chest-high ballpark fence as he leaped to catch what would have been a home run. He came up with the ball in his glove and the batter was called out.

For all of my enthusiasm, which even included poring over several books written by former professional ballplayers, I was never tempted to actually lace up a pair of Little League cleats. I wasn't terribly athletic, nor did I particularly want to be. My love of baseball was intense, but even then it had some of the distance and unfathomable motivation that now lies behind my annual two- to three-week fling.

It was during the fifth game of the pennant race this year between the Boston Red Sox and the Los Angeles Angels that suddenly it all came clear -- I understood what motivated my love affair with baseball and undoubtedly that of hundreds of others who never came closer than the bleachers to playing on an organized ball team. Like many in Boston, I had stayed up the night before to watch a 3-0 Red Sox lead slip from our grasp in the bottom of the ninth in a key game. I woke up the next morning feeling -- as the players must have -- that it was a nightmare I simply couldn't shake off. And now here we were one strike away from losing the pennant race.

The batter, Dave Henderson, later admitted that when he stepped out of the batter's box to pull himself together he thought: ``We are ballplayers, and ball-players fail most of the time.'' He recalled: ``Then I went back in there thinking I just have to get the ball in play somewhere.'' And he did -- with a two-run homer that saved the game and brought the Angels back to Boston for a sixth and seventh game!

Who could forget the look on his face, knowing what he had done even before the ball left the park, or the dance he performed on his way around the bases? He had done what the odds would say was virtually impossible, what any ballplayer in that position would most have wanted, and what could only be done with the help of grace.

It was then I realized that this incredible play, and baseball itself, was a metaphor depicting life. Who couldn't help thinking of similar nonathletic moments (in this case, of tremendous odds against oneself) while watching Dave Henderson face what was more than likely to be the last strike of the pennant race? Or in watching any number of situations in the game of baseball: pitchers confronting tough batters, superhuman saves that mean little without the teamwork that follows, and tragic errors that have to be explained to the television cameras afterward.

Baseball is like a living poem in which there seems to be an endless variety of statement and meaning within a very strict and somewhat limited form. And like poetry, baseball tells us about our life and, most important, its possibility -- in a way that doesn't happen quite so easily in faster-moving sports. I think this is the only way to explain why Bartlett Giamatti, former professor and president of Yale, left to become the president of the National League, and why he could say along with so many others: ``I've always found baseball the most satisfying and nourishing game outside of literature.''

But that spectacular hit of Dave Henderson's showed me something more important than simply that baseball serves as a useful metaphor for life. This came clear when we and the television networks were criticized for paying more attention to baseball than to what was called ``the collapsed summit'' in Iceland. Naturally, there was some truth to this. The progress of nuclear arms limitations is obviously far more important than who won the World Series.

But I began to wonder to myself: What tells us more about the possibilities and hope for a better world? Two superpower leaders who once again are unable to come to a substantive agreement? Or a ballplayer who, in an extraordinary moment of grace, whacks the ball out of the park when there's only one strike left before it's all over?

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