Don't bother me today about Poland. Don't show me pictures of Jean Harris in her cell. Don't remind me about El Salvador, or tell me about the budget cuts, or ask me to sing sad songs about the auto companies. I don't want to hear about it. It's the springtime, my friend. It might be snowing where you live. The wind might be raw and brutal. The grass might still be parched and brown. But I know it's the springtime because the stories are coming up from Florida, and they're playing baseball again.
Ask me about J. R. Richards and we can talk. Tell me what's the matter with Ron Guidry and we can stroll a dozen blocks together. Discuss George Steinbrenner and Gene Autry, tell me something good about Mark Fidrych, let me hear what you know about George Brett, and you've got me. But don't tell me about the world. Not today. It's the springtime, and they're knocking baseballs around fields where the grass is damp and green in the morning and the kids are trying to hit the curve ball.
Basketball lost me when they made the playoffs endless and exhausting. I never heard of anybody in the hockey leagues. I'm not very big on pro football either, with its language lifted from the Pentagon and its coaches who look like Alexander Haig. I'm sorry: Baseball is the game. Baseball is the sport of a democracy, where the only requirement is talent. You don't have to be a giant to play it. You don't have to be able to fight on ice skates. You don't have to be a 240-pound side of beef, synchronized into a war machine.
All you have to do is run and field and hit. You don't even have to be Babe Ruth. You can be a .230 hitter and play in the big leagues, if you can stop a ground ball with a glove. You can be a drunk on your day off, a womanizer or a model Christian; you can believe that Ronald Reagan has saved the republic, that Ted Kennedy could have done it better, that the communists are poisoning the water supply or that God is a 1947 Servel refrigerator; in the ballpark, nobody cares. In the ballpark, all you have to do is play.
Baseball makes a lot of people cranky these days. They think the ballplayers make too much money, that mediocre talent is being too extravagantly rewarded. Some fans are tired of reading about players who will strike to make millions; others resent the rising price of admission. Others think the owners are too often out of the corporate mold that brought us Penn Central, Lockheed and the Chrysler Corp., men without imagination, obsessed with short-term profit to the point where profits become impossible as the teams stagnate. Maybe they're all right; I don't know. I don't care. I'm from the generation that forgives baseball everything.
When I was a kid, there was nothing else. We had no money. We didn't live in those pristine white picket-fence homes in the Doris Day movies. Our clothes were modest, steak was a rumor and the only cars were owned by the cops. We didn't care. We had Robinson, Reese and Furillo. We had Stanky and Hodges and Billy Cox. They came to us in the spring, as certain as rain and birds. They came on the radio, with Red Barber telling their tale, and there was nothing else we wanted.
There was a ballpark then, where I lived, and we knew in the spring that the great lush summer lay before us. We would play the Cardinals down to the wire, and hope that Stan Musial didn't wreck us too badly, and that Enos Slaughter wouldn't come up with men on base in the late innings. We would hate the Giants, but cheer for Willie Mays, because nobody in all those summers had played with such gladness and grace. We would root against Pittsburgh and demean Cincinnati, and hope that in the fall, just once, while we were alive, we would win it all in the National League and see somebody else waiting for us besides the Yankees.
We hated the Yankees, of course; the whole country did. Someone said later that rooting for the New York Yankees was like rooting for United States Steel. They were too perfect, too automated, too cool; we liked ballplayers with passion and desire, people like Stanky, whose small talents were made large by a fighting heart. Of all the Yankees, only Billy Martin could have played in our little ballpark.
Then, in 1957, the world changed forever. Our team left town and went to Los Angeles. And then strangers came around with bulldozers and wrecking balls and smashed our little ballpark into rubble. They built a housing project on the site, and if you go around there now, you can see a metal plate that tells you that a team called the Brooklyn Dodgers once played in a place called Ebbetts Field on that site. The metal plate is next to the sign that says: "No Ballplaying Allowed."
For the next 20 years, I believed that the three worse people of the 20th century were Hitler, Stalin and Walter O'Malley. I never forgave any of them. Yes: Los Angeles should have had a major-league team. I just didn't want it to have mine. But I couldn't stay away from baseball. In the ballpark, you look inward, at a glare of green; the city is behind you, out of sight. The large dangerous world is somewhere else for those few slow hours. It's a game for steady men, I suppose, for men who can last across the longest season in sports. But it's also a game of intricate geometries, of nuance, detail, subtlety and style.
More than anything, it's a game of innocence. Politicians come and go, but they always get booed at the ballpark. And now, each day, the words come over the radio, and the pictures fill the sports pages. The pitchers and catchers are in camp; the hitters are on their way; the kids are doing their best. The world is with us, the issues crowd in, disasters loom like thunderclouds. But still, it's spring. I'm sure of that. And in a few more weeks, when the chill is gone, there'll be flags flapping in the wind around the ballparks, and someone will walk out of a dugout, spit tobacco on the ground and hand the umpires the lineup. I'll see you there.