Friday, February 18, 2011

National Time-Past

National Time-Past

In uncertain times one needs an alternative universe. When have times ever not been uncertain and when has the baseball season not served that purpose?

Football is done. Basketball is over-done; too many games with too many points. Even though I played the sport against dead backboards in schoolyards and as a freshman in college it doesn't conjure the sensory memories of baseball with its smell of bubblegum cards, the fervor of a box score, the feel of a first baseman's mitt and the infield chatter, Chuck easy baby.

Spring training is soon upon us. Just in time to save me from the malice that spews from Fox fabled news. Daily they test my threshold. Of course baseball also tests my tolerance for greed and arrogance but somehow my infantilism has emerged in tact. Anything to keep that inner child alive.

Maybe it's the pace of our pastoral game that slips me into reverie. The absence of a clock and irregular expanse of outfield grass puts it on the margin of space-time.

In the popular imagination baseball is associated with open spaces or sand lots yet urban kids found facsimiles in stoop ball, stick ball, punch ball and hitting fungo. Manhole covers served just fine as bases or home plate. And if you didn’t play you could follow the sport as living history arcana.

I think it was the first thing I knew that my parents didn't. An entrée into the grown-up world; not all adults but enough to give it some legitimacy. For many first generation kids or refugees, baseball was a portal into American life. I expect many immigrants learned English listening to the radio broadcasts.

What Joe DiMaggio did for Italian-Americans, Hank Greenberg did for the Jewish population in and around Detroit. The war years interrupted both these icons in their prime but not sufficiently to deny them a permanent place in the hearts of their followers.

As a Dodger fan I worshipped Red Barber, with his casual erudition, which raised the experience a notch or two. In those days I listened to re-creations of games played as far west as St. Louis, every pitch coming over ticker-tape. I could see the green grass in the radio speaker and even smell the hot dogs.

The game probably helped introduce me to early arithmetic with its batting averages, RBIs and pitcher's ERA. It is a world of numbers but it also contains a mystery that eludes the statisticians. Call it contingency. Call it the human factor. Call it life.

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