More to Life Than Baseball? Sez Who?

At the beginning of another baseball season, I remember how quickly I fell out of favor with the school librarian on my very first day as a high school freshman.

"Do you carry The Sporting News?" I asked innocently enough, hoping to be able to read the "baseball bible" at school as well as home.

"No," the librarian said, pulling himself up to his full 5′ 1″(approximately) and glaring at me through his Coke bottle glasses. "We used to, but we don't anymore," he said in a slow, even voice. "We found it attracted the wrong kind of element – you know, the locker room crowd."

"Oh!" I said. "We certainly wouldn't want them in here." I realized I had worn out my welcome and I bid him good day.

If I were to see that librarian today, I might like to tell him that baseball, one of the great passions of the "locker room crowd" (We had other passions, too, but I was sure our librarian wouldn't want to hear of them), affects every subject touched upon by any book in that library. Baseball may seem at times to be excessively about numbers – batting averages, home runs, earned run averages, home records, road records, percentages for day games and for night games, on real grass and on artificial turf, yadda, yadda, yadda. But baseball is really about life and death, because it is about the people who have played, watched and loved the game, all those still living and the greater number who are, as the Old Professor used to say, "dead at the present time."

It's about love and hopelessness. Whenever I hear Karen Carpenter sing in the Carpenters' recording, "Goodbye to Love," that "the only thing I know of love is how to live without it," I think of Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer telling his Hall of Fame manager, Earl Weaver: "The only thing you know about pitching is, you couldn't hit it!" It's about courage, which Hemingway defined as "grace under pressure." For courage, it's hard to beat last year's amazing post-season pitching performance on torn tendon by Curt Schilling, star of Boston's "Red Sock of Courage."

It's about death, which comes to all players in life's game. (As Archie Bunker explained to his wife, "Somebody's gotta be dead, Edith, that's life.") Surely, no one ever faced death more courageously than the great Lou Gehrig, who before dying at age 37, told a sellout crowd at Yankee Stadium: "I feel like the luckiest man on the face of the earth."

And baseball is even about sex, which is why we find Rafael Palmeiro on TV, hawking Viagra. It's why we find a Boston Herald columnist repeating a line about how Ted Williams, the great Boston slugger, "batted .344 on the field and .844 off it." (I find it hard to believe that nearly 16 percent of the women he "hit on" sent Ted back to the bench hitless.) It's why in "Play it again, Sam," we find Woody Allen explaining to Diane Keaton why he liked to think about Willie Mays when doing something spectacular, like making love. "I was wondering why you kept yelling, u2018Slide, slide!'" she said.

It's about good guys like New Hampshire natives Mike Flanagan, Steve "Bye, Bye" Balboni, Bob Tewksbury and Chris Carpenter, as well as wacky guys like Bill "Spaceman" Lee, who says he's opposed to mandatory drug testing because: "I tested them all in the Eighties and I don't think it should be mandatory." It's about an even wackier guy, and a far better pitcher, named Dizzy Dean, who vehemently denied he ever put any "foreign substance" on the ball. "Anything I put on the ball is made right here in the good ol' US of A," said the patriotic "Diz."

It's about men like former Red Sox pitcher Dennis "Oil Can" Boyd, whose reaction to a game called off because of fog at Cleveland's Municipal Stadium ranks as one of the classics of baseball commentary: "That's what they get for buildin' a ballpark on the (bleep)in' ocean, man." It's about Casey Stengel, the aforementioned "Old Professor," who was "no doubt discharged" as manager of the New York Yankees when the top brass decided the team needed a younger manager. "I'll never make the mistake of bein' 70 years old again," Casey promised.

Nor will I, if I should live so long. "Art is long and time is fleeting" as a right-handed poet named Longfellow (following Horace) wrote. The players grow old, but the crowd is forever young – and impatient. As John Fogerty sings on his memorable recording, "Centerfield," we're "born again, there's new grass on the field!" Yes we fans have had our spring training, too. Put us in, coach.

We're ready to play – today!

April 4, 2005

Manchester, NH, resident Jack Kenny (send him mail) is a freelance writer.