There is, in front of the press box at Memorial Stadium, an annex of sorts that hangs suspended over the foul-ball net.
The annex is for overflow writers on busy days, but last weekend I climbed out there with Tom Boswell, our baseball man. The effect was to leave the press box and enter into heaven. We were floating above the emerald diamond, so close (it seemed) we could hear Eddie Murray's hands squeak against his bat as he stood in for Dan Quisenberry's first pitch.
Boswell the week before had written a nice piece declaring Quisenberry "the best performer" in baseball. Chock full of statistics and unassailable logic, the piece ended with a grand Boswellian flourish. Given one player to start his own team, he would select Quisenberry, the Royals' submariner having one of history's great relief-pitching seasons.
Unassailable logic is no defense against argument at the ol' ball park. So in our heavenly perch I told Boswell he could have Quisenberry. I would take Murray because, I said with unassailable logic, a great every-day player is a factor in thousands of situations at bat and in the field and therefore more valuable than the best relief pitcher of all time, who might be on the field for 300 outs a year.
"But those 300 outs," Boswell said, scooping at his chocolate chip ice cream (yes, heaven), "are always in critical situations with the game on the line."
About then, Murray hit Quisenberry's first pitch 420 feet for a home run. I waited, oh, at least two seconds before turning to my buddy. "Now who would you rather have, Quisenberry or Murray?"
Boswell, Horatio with the bridge burning behind him, smiled as he stood defiant. "Quisenberry."
Sometimes we forget how pretty our games are. How lovely it is to sit at the ball park, eating ice cream, debating the unresolvable with friends, seeing athletes make miracles.
How thrilling it is, and this is the source of the beauty, that our lives carry the footprints of the games so deeply imprinted that we are, as if by magic, standing in for Quisenberry's first pitch.
In complex, frustrating, ambiguous lives, it is wonderful to have a land of escape no more distant than a ball park's turnstile. Even sports columnists take time off from kicking their small dogs to write pleasant little stories about the grown-ups playing kids' games. "I've always had the notion that people go to spectator sports to have fun and then they grab the paper to read about it and have fun again," Red Smith said.
Lately, though, the sports pages have been heavy with stories that aren't fun. They speak of cocaine, gambling and steroids.
This is the dark side of the beauty that owns us, and no one has fun reading or writing about it. To ignore the coming darkness, though, is to guarantee its arrival as surely as if a Hog spotted Too Tall Jones rolling down on Joe Theismann and said, "Gee, it's no fun trying to knock that gentleman down, so I'll let him go and hope Joe gets out alive."
We'll get out of this coke/steroid/gambling business alive, for sure, because the sports fan, as passionately as any aficionado, believes the flame of his love lights the darkness always. How else to explain the rhapsody in prose that Pat Conroy created in the September issue of Southern Living magazine?
Conroy is the author of "The Great Santini" and "The Lords of Discipline." It turns out he also is a disciple of Herschel Walker, the subject of his magazine piece entitled, "Herschel Walker: Being a Matter of Immortality." Whatever darkness is in Walker, and there is convincing evidence he is a manipulative opportunist, Conroy sees only the sunshine.
I quote several Conroy lines on Walker:
" . . . so beautiful and so perfect that the nature of our species changed forever."
"Watching him sprint out on a sweep-around end, you knew that you were blessed and special to watch the swift movement of the strongest, fastest man alive. He was as lovely to watch as Secretariat."
"The Lord had not given Herschel Walker a body; he had granted him a franchise, a multinational corporation . . . He possesses a body that makes the statues of Michelangelo appear effete and disempowered."
" . . . he was the loveliest athlete ever to put on a set of pads beneath an American sun."
Nary a word in the piece on Walker's lying to his teammates, coaches and press about signing a pro contract; not a mention from any expert that Walker's distaste for contact might devalue him as a pro, and not a hint that Walker, as the sainted one himself confessed, listened to pro football money offers even before going to college and therefore was technically ineligible the whole time.
Still, Conroy has it right.
Herschel Walker is lovely in motion.
In the end, when we go to the ball park to have some fun, it matters more that Herschel can run than that he messes up the truth. We know the darkness is there. We don't ignore it. We write about it and we read about it. But, finally, we forgive him the little darkness because he brings so much light.
In the same way, we read and write about cocaine, gambling and steroids. We know our games are no fun sometimes. We also know that we need to care about them or else the darkness will consume them.
But we know, too, as certainly as we know anything--as certainly as we know that Eddie Murray is more valuable than Dan Quisenberry--we know that the games will lift us up a whole lot more often than they'll let us down.