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Baseball Springs Eternal

This week marks the opening of another baseball season, the long wait ’til this year finally over for the 29 teams that didn’t win the World Series last year.

Baseball is the only sport that produces great writing every year, as new books come out and new essays are written to mark the beginning of the season. They always tell a story extending beyond the game itself.

There is nothing in any other sport quite like a Vin Scully conversation, or a Roger Angell essay, or a George Will book. Bill Kristol linked some Opening Day reading, including Clark Griffith’s beautifully-written piece on the timeless appeal of baseball, a game Griffith says “tells a story that relates to the human condition.” Here is his description of a home run:

Baseball’s most prestigious feat is the home run … The home run derives its prestige from the act of driving the hostile pitch out of the field of play in a showing of complete victory. It is the ultimate show of dominance, like Alexander the Great cutting the Gordian Knot. A home run allows the batter to trot regally, with impunity, in an ostentatiously slow, plodding, sometimes taunting pace, while the fielders must stand and watch, incapable of action, mute.     

Perhaps the most remarkable description of a home run in Jewish literature comes in Ehud Havazelet’s extraordinary short story collection, Like Never Before, in a story entitled “Six Days.” Birnbaum, a Holocaust survivor lost in America in the Sixties, takes his young son David to Yankee Stadium during Passover, in a scene that captured a Jewish generational divide:

[Birnbaum] was not much interested in the game, barely understood its rules, and it was with some effort that he responded to the boy’s enthusiasm when a favorite – Mickey Mantle, Bobby Richardson – came up to hit, or when something exciting had just occurred and he had missed it, his nose buried in a book, but about which he needed, for the boy’s sake, to be surprised, willing on a moment’s read of his son’s face to be crestfallen or delighted…

The boy kept score, as he called it, leaned over to tell him Maris was due … Birnbaum would nod, smile, look out at the costumed men on the field and see nothing. He would make an effort, remark of a towering fly ball caught near the outfield fence that that was some hit … But his son would look baffled at him, might say, It was an out, Abba, and Birnbaum would nod, edified, and return to his book …

They sat far back in the reserved section, eating egg salad and tuna on matzoh … Suddenly there was commotion all around them. Birnbaum was alarmed, looked to see everyone standing, moving at once … They were in a mob. Birnbaum’s heart pushed into his throat as he reached for his boy to take him and run. Then, above their heads, a white streak, the ball, a few rows behind them with a man with a hair-covered stomach bulging from an unbuttoned shirt catching it easily with an outstretched hand …

“Are you all right?” Birnbaum wanted to ask his son, but the boy was already turned to him, all smiles, an American boy pounding his mitt. “Jeez, did you see that?” he said. “I almost had it. A home run by Norm Cash!”

Mantle wins it with a home run in the ninth, but throughout the game “Birnbaum could not relax, kept looking from his book to David to the people around them, thinking it would be dark when they left the stadium, then two hours on the subway, and the long walk home.”

Griffith writes that baseball’s appeal “is the story of players alone in the wilderness, relying on friends for help, and being alert to dangers, while focusing on the single goal of reaching home safely … The story played out is like life itself.” In a review of this year’s new baseball books, L.A. Times book critic David Ulin argues that “we live through the long season, the long careers of our heroes; in their victories, but more often in their travails, we see some reflection of ourselves.”

So play ball; never give up; run out every ground ball; and be a mensch


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