Losing ground

By

THE recent World Series did bear a certain resemblance to baseball. There were shortstops and double plays, boneheaded calls by umpires, moments of glory for journeymen players who will now slip gentle into that good baseball night. But in crucial respects, baseball - the game, not what team owners call the ``product'' - was missing. Leave aside for the moment the ``designated hitter'' rule and Minnesota's domed stadium, of which the less said the better. Something even more fundamental was wrong with this year's Series: grass, or rather, the lack of it.

For the third time in history (the first was in 1980), all the games were played on green nylon carpeting called ``artificial turf,'' or ``AstroTurf.'' Not once, during all seven games, did a baseball touch a single blade of grass.

Nowhere is the affection of pro sports owners for artificial playing surfaces more regrettable than in baseball. In no other sport is the field itself so much a part of the game.

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Old time ballparks (note that word) entwine themselves into the proceedings, like the eccentric streets of old European cities. Yankee Stadium's diminutive right-field line, built for Babe Ruth, or even San Francisco's Candlestick Park, where the wind actually ripples the grass. As often as not, the park itself separates home runs from fly outs, winners from losers.

The contact between ball and field - a bad infield hop, for example - figures more largely than in many other sports. And who could forget the confrontations between the New York Yankees and the Brooklyn Dodgers in the '50s, the way the late afternoon sun, declining behind the grandstand, threw majestic shadows across Yankee Stadium or Ebbets Field below? In the batter's box, Duke Snider and Jackie Robinson were enshrouded in darkness, rendering all the more dramatic their efforts to master Whitey Ford's elusive curves.

The ways artificial surfaces interrupt such dramas have become almost a litany. Routine grounders scoot across the infield to become cheap base hits. Fly balls bounce over outfielders' heads, making a surreal slapstick of this most dignified of games.

Grass, by contrast, softens hard liners and helps the outfielder set up for a long throw to the plate. The home team can cut it long or short, adding an element of strategy and intrigue to the game.

Artificial grass is, literally, an asphalt parking lot with a rug on top, and looks it. But the worst violation, I think, is the way manufactured fields tear the game from its history, and from its function as connective tissue in our national mind. One might as well try to separate the Mississippi from Mark Twain as to call a game ``baseball'' that isn't played on real grass.

In my earliest baseball memories, I am tumbling after balls in the front yard grass, freshly cut and like a fragrant cushion. Falling on it was part of the delight. Grass stains became badges of honor on P.F. Flyers and chino pants - the badges Jimmy Piersall, the daredevil Red Sox centerfielder of the '50s, collected on his uniform after yet another amazing catch.

Mowing the grass wasn't quite as bad when you knew you could perform this kind of heroics on it afterward.

The way Eskimos discern the many textures of snow, and corporate executives, the subtlest status message of office size and placement, so kids mark the development of their baseball skills according to the grass on which they play.

AS the youngest at the local playground, my friends and I were relegated to a cramped corner lot. Right field was a fringe of tall grass and weeds that sloped down toward the Boston & Maine railroad tracks. By declaration, balls hit there were automatic outs; once, chasing such an errant hit, I stumbled into a nest of wasps.

In early spring, we watched the playgrounds like farmers, for that ecstatic moment when the mud was dry and a surge of green appeared on the ground.

At 9 came the Little League minors and a stony, threadbare diamond, with bases stuck in makeshift fashion two-thirds of the way down the adult-sized baselines. On windy days, everyone pulled their brims (curved Willie Mays-style, of course) down low to keep the sand out of their eyes. You didn't slide if you could possibly avoid it.

The next year I made the majors, attaining not just a real uniform (worn proudly to school on game days), but a regulation Little League field as well. The grass was clumpy and coarse, but at least you could tell where it stopped and the base path began. Later, the All-Star team traveled to a tony suburban field as groomed and lush as the country clubs where we caddied in the summer. One almost expected servants to appear with orange slices between innings.

And so it went, each successive field a kind of measure of achievement. At the end of this progression, looming - in my case - ever more distant as life steered me down other paths, was Fenway Park, the object of so much cloying rhapsody and deserving every word of it.

Actually, people didn't talk about Fenway as a ``jewel'' much back then. That didn't come until the new antiseptic stadiums made its charms more apparent. But to a little boy, Fenway's grass did seem utterly splendid, a form of aristocracy to which, in the best American fashion, anyone could aspire. (Best of all, nobody would ever ask you to mow it.)

Artificial grass has no part in this. It has no more roots in memory than in the ground. The world it connects to is not that of human experience or natural process but of accountancy and financial calculation. Not to overstate the case, it is nevertheless true that dictators endeavor to cut people off from their memories, their sense of what and where they have been.

We need baseball on grass because it is part of our identity. It connects us at several levels to the children that we were, and little boys to the adulthood they can envision for themselves. A curious thing, this ``progress'' that separates people from what is important to them - makes us wish things were more the way they used to be.

In a just world, every owner of a professional sports team who inflicts a nylon playing surface upon players and fans would be required by law to carpet his own front lawn in like fashion. And his car. And his board room. And the greens at his country club.

But perhaps we can appeal to their better instincts. If we can send a man to the moon, surely we can have ballparks with good old-fashioned grass.

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