Forty’s House o’ Fun

It’s February, and America’s pastime is most likely far from your mind. The snow is falling here in Williamstown, the baseball team just started indoor practices, and the diamond is buried under several feet of white powder. But in other parts of the world, spring training camps have begun to open. That most dangerous of illnesses, baseball fever, has once again begun to spread across America.

Baseball news requires an economics degree to understand, often boring most fans into ignoring the sport. Agents are mentioned as often as players. Salaries are absurd, ticket prices get hiked every year, fans at Camden Yards complain about people in suits talking on their cell phones during ball games that last almost four hours. Has money destroyed the beauty of the game of baseball?

Absolutely not. The creeping menace of the almighty dollar has failed to taint the basic cornerstones of baseball’s appeal. Baseball is a game of little things, a double-header on a beautiful July afternoon, boiled hot dogs and packets of Gulden’s mustard, the smell of Polish sausage on Lansdowne Street behind Fenway Park, the guy behind you in the bleachers pouring his beer on your head, trying to see a fly ball.

It is things like little kids flocking into a stadium carrying their gloves and those ridiculous foam hands, or Ken Griffey Jr. taking less money in the prime of his career to go home, then giving up his number out of respect for Tony Perez and donning his father’s number instead. It is Brett Butler laying down a suicide squeeze in the tenth to score the runner from third, the 6-4-3 double play to end the inning, a Roger Clemens fastball leaving trails of smoke in front of the cleanup hitter. Those are the things that make baseball a part of the American soul, not the quest for 200 million dollars.

The beauty of the sport is too often lost among its myriad inadequacies. And don’t get me wrong, there are many. But for those of us who follow it, they are far less important than the strengths. Did you know that baseball is the one game where the actions of the players determine the ending? There is no clock to dictate strategy, no time limit to force hurried three-pointers from the top of the key, no pulling the goalie in the final minute. The game does not end until the teams run out of opportunities. The unlikeliest of heroes are created, not because the play was designed to give them an open jump shot, but because it happened to be their turn in the batting order and they were forced to produce.

Now, I am a diehard Red Sox fan, an occupation of endless pain and torment. This time of year, I open the paper and see a roster filled with promise and possibility. Then I watch as April and May are outstanding and the Red Sox fight for a share of the A.L. East lead. They falter in June and July, then surge in August. Inevitably, though, they disappoint. It just depends whether it’s in September or October. But it does not matter. I love the excitement. I know that eventually they’ll put together that one amazing season. It will likely hinge on the emergence of an unknown hero, hitting eighth in the batting order and earning the league minimum, or some lefty reliever just called up from the minors, working for pretzels and beer. But that’s what baseball is all about, right?

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