Baseball offers us pleasure and insight at so many levels and in so many forms that, when we try to grasp the whole sport in our two hands, we end up with nothing. The game, because it is no one thing, but rather, dozens of things, has slipped through our fingers again.
As another season begins, we always feel the desire to capsulize and define the source of the sharp anticipation that we feel as opening day approaches.
Yet, every year, the task is as elusive as ever. We know that something fine, almost wonderful, is about to begin. But we can't quite say why baseball seems so valuable, almost indispensable, to us.
Perhaps, as much as anything, it is baseball's kaleidoscopic, serendipitous quality that attracts us, that convinces us with the years that it is one of our broadest sources of metaphor. The game changes with our angle of vision, our mood; there seems to be no end to our succession of lucky discoveries.
When opening day arrives Monday, think how many baseball worlds will begin revolving again for the next seven months.
As history, baseball will give us its 115th annual chapter. Countless questions that attach themselves to the baseball continuum will be answered.
Will the revolutionary World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals--the team that wins without the two basic staples of the modern game, power and starting pitching--continue to teach us the possibilities of a new turf sport? Or will they seem just a lovely fluke, proof that a team with almost any sort of style can be a champion if it plays with grit, intelligence and confidence?
Will Nolan Ryan, Gaylord Perry and Steve Carlton all break Walter Johnson's 56-year-old career strikeout record (3,508) in the same season? Will Carlton win the 15 games he needs for 300? Will Reggie Jackson hit 36 homers for 500? Will Pete Rose get 131 hits for 4,000? Will Terry Felton--0-16 in his career and starting the season in the minors--ever win a game? Yes, we walk with giants. And when Carl Yastrzemski--who needs to play in 110 games to break Hank Aaron's all-time record of 3,298--retires at the end of this year, we will have one less.
Will baseball really fire Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, whose contract expires in August, at the same time the sport breaks its all-time attendance record (44.6 million in '82) and signs a billion-dollar television contract that assures the game of across-the-board black ink for the next five years?
As living theater and physical poetry, the game will be available in 26 ballparks on more than 2,000 occasions. Baseball is always there when we want it--seven days a week, six months a year. All the tactile pleasures of the park are ready when the proper mood strikes us: evening twilights, sundowns, hot summer Sunday afternoons, the cool of the dark late-innings of night games, quiet drives home as we decompress and digest.
Then, just when we think the game is essentially mellow and reflective, we find ourselves looped in the twists and coils of a 5-4 barnburner between two contenders. When the center fielder jumps above the fence in the bottom of the ninth and comes down with the ball and the game in his hand, we realize that two to three hours is just the proper amount of time to tighten the mainspring of tension before letting us explode in one final cheer. We leave with a glowing tiredness, delighted by the memories of this impromptu and virile ballet, all choreographed by the capricious flight of a ball.
Despite all this, baseball may give us more pleasure, more gentle unobtrusive sustenence away from the park than it does inside it.
With breakfast, we have our 10 minutes of box scores--enough to travel to 13 cities, see 13 games in our mind's eye, note at a glance what 500 players did or failed to do.
Dave Righetti, five walks in four innings, still can't get his delivery in sync with men on base. Gorman Thomas, three for four, out of his slump, will probably go right into a streak and hit six homers by next Friday.
On Sunday, the breakfast process takes an extra 10 minutes since The Averages must be consumed. We imagine the state of mind of dozens of players and their teammates. (Who ever thought Niekro had another good season in him? Kingman's down to .196; bet that bum's a prince to be around.)
Then, in odd parts of the day, the game drifts into the mind. Who's pitching tonight? Is it on TV? At worst, the home team is on the radio; catch the last few innings. In a sense, the radio is second best to being there. No sport is a fraction so vivid in the mind as baseball.
The radio double play--Ozzie Smith in the hole, Joe Morgan scooting toward first, Rose trying to take out Tommy Herr--why it doesn't even have to happen to be real.
The ways that baseball insinuates itself into our empty corners, cheering up the odd hour, are almost too ingrained to notice. Tape at 11, the scores before bed, the Monday and Saturday games of the week. Into how many conversations does George Steinbrenner's name creep so that we may gauge the judgments of our friends, catch a glimpse of their values on the sly?
Even the amateur statistican and the armchair strategist in us is roused; what fan doesn't have a new system for grading relief pitchers, or a theory on how Billy Martin could deploy his human chess pieces better so he'd have a decent pitching rotation?
Just this week, Joseph M. Wayman of South Gate, Calif., wrote to say that his hobby is computing how many games each team in baseball wins and loses each season because of unearned runs. Last year, the Braves lost 18 games because of errors and the average team lost a dozen, while the only club that didn't lose a single game on an unearned run was the Baltimore Orioles.
Sure, opening day is baseball's bandwagon. Now's the time for pundits and politicians and every self-indulgent prose poet on the continent to jump on board for a few days. But they'll be gone soon, off in search of some other big, windy event worthy of their attention.
Then, once more, for all those long, slow months, baseball will be left to us. And the year can begin.