Baseball Springs Eternal

The first hint of spring has finally made it to my little corner of heaven here in the Midwest. The temps creep toward that magical “six zero” on the thermometer and the final vestiges of last week’s snowstorm melt away -- the white stuff not to be seen, it is hoped, for a few months.

As we say here in flyover country, “don’t count your chickens.” I have distinctly unpleasant memories of many an Easter snowstorm; mid-April Alberta Clippers careening down from Canada with Old Man Winter at the helm, laughing at us mortals who mistook a couple of weeks of moderating temperatures as a sign that spring was here to stay.

Lord what fools we mortals be.

With that caveat, I am cautiously predicting that spring has, in fact, made an appearance here on the prairie. Whether, like any good seductress, she is simply showing us a little leg, a hint of cleavage, a bare shoulder to whet our appetite only to retreat to the parlor awaiting a more auspicious moment to realize our dreams of warmth and color; or whether she has decided to jump up on the bar and start the real show is entirely up to the vagaries of winter’s dying will.

There is another harbinger of spring that many of us still hearken to. The crack of the bat, the thwumpt of a ball impacting a padded glove, and the joyful shouts of children released from winter’s doldrums as they cavort on the diamond, partaking in an American ritual almost as old as the republic itself. It has gone under various names: town ball, old cat, roundball, or simply “base.” But on New England village greens, crowded city streets, and farmers' fields there was always a bat, a ball, and dreams of glory for kids of all ages.

Yes, the professional game is not what it once was. Players juiced up on steroids, appearing on police blotters with alarming regularity; salaries that a Maharajah would envy; and beyond that, a disconnect between the teams, the players and the fans who once followed their hometown team and cheered their heroes as if nothing else mattered.

For the longest time in America, very little else did matter during the summer except Major League Baseball. It is hard to explain to someone under 30-years-old the hold that the game had on the country well into the 1960’s. Before the current glut of games available to watch on television, there was NBC’s “Game of the Week” on Saturday afternoon, ABC’s Sunday package, and, if you were lucky enough to live in a city with a Major League franchise, around 80 games a year to enjoy -- sometimes much less.

Players, undeservedly in many cases I realize now, were worshipped as gods by American boys and girls. It was a time when everyone hated the Yanks, loved Mickey Mantle, and knew the lineup for their favorite team by heart. We had endless arguments -- some coming to blows -- about the strengths and weaknesses of the various players. This passion was shared by grownups who were glued to transistor radios at the office during the World Series (no night games until 1971) and made baseball a topic of national conversation around water coolers at work, over the back fence with neighbors, and at the dinner table with the family.

The mists of time are sure to shroud some of my memories in an unrealistic haze that makes the game of my youth a little more glorious than it actually was, elevating that period in American history above the squalid, grasping cynicism of today’s spectacles. But there is little doubt that America’s love affair with baseball has cooled, and it is hard to see how it can ever be re-ignited.

But the love affair is alive and well with some. And in my little town, the old spirit lives on in the hearts of the “Over 50” league -- a group of middle aged men who refuse to see that time has passed them by and play the game with a love and abandon that calls to mind the best that the game has meant to America.

They do not play softball -- either the 12” or 16” variety. This isn’t “Beer Ball” or some variation of a Saturday afternoon lark by drinking buddies. They play what we used to call “league” ball or “hardball.” And I can testify to the fact that they play for keeps -- games come complete with brush back pitches, head first slides, and even the occasional bench clearing “rhubarb,” where the dignity and wisdom of age is replaced with the white hot emotion of competitive ballplayers.

I have watched many of these games and can attest to the sheer, childlike joy of the participants. Ear to ear grins on the players are common as they make their way around the field. Most have what we might euphemistically refer to as “a middle aged spread,” but are in reasonably good shape. There are times when the infielders can’t get quite low enough to snag that ground ball, and the outfielders don’t cover as much ground as is perhaps necessary. But what the players lack in talent, they make up for with sheer effort and esprit.

This is the way the game should be played -- all out effort and a respect for its traditions and history. Many of the players wear numbers of their boyhood heroes. Among these ares #7 in honor of Mickey Mantle and #14, which was Ernie Bank’s designation. Like magical talismans, the older men hope the numbers will -- if not help them recapture the grace and athleticism of their youth -- at least make them feel a closeness to the greats whose exploits on the diamond is the stuff of legend.

I've caught myself thinking at times that this ragtag bunch of middle-aged men were guarding a precious legacy, almost like the old ones in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 who memorized entire books to keep the literary tradition alive and protect it from the tyrannical government that wished to destroy all literature. The players in this “Masters” league keep the traditions of the game alive in their hearts as much as their heads. Their bones may creak. Their muscles may not be as supple. But there is no mistaking the love of baseball that animates their actions, giving their play a meaning beyond the physical and entering the sublime milieu of the soul.

We are among the last generation of Americans who think of the game of baseball in this way. Some may believe it rather silly, all this fuss about a game. Perhaps it is. But I have learned over the years that those as passionate about baseball as I am share a common defense against the cynicism and ridicule of others; we could care less what you think.

This is our game. And it will be America’s game as long as enough of us are left alive who thrill to the sound of the crack of the bat and shouts of players joyously participating in our national pastime as winter gives way to spring and the promise -- just the promise -- that the renewal of life will bring with it a renewal of hope.

At my age, Alexander Pope’s words become more than a cliché:

Hope springs eternal in the human breast;

Man never Is, but always To be blest:

The soul, uneasy and confin’d from home,

Rests and expatiates in a life to come.

I think Pope would have been a baseball fan.

Rick Moran blogs at Right Wing Nut House.