COMMENTARY : For Baseball Fan, Show Misses the Strike Zone

ASSISTANT SAN DIEGO COUNTY ARTS EDITOR

Baseball, the game of players, people, percentages and parks, is what gives summer a shot of adrenaline.

It is Babe Ruth hitting 714 home runs. Ty Cobb hitting over .400 three times. Murderers' Row. Dizzy and Daffy. Wrigley Field without lights. Hot dogs with the works.

So why is it that "Diamonds Are Forever" (which asks the pastoral question "What is it about baseball?") largely skirts this tradition and feeling?

Players holler and collide. Umpires bellow and gesture. Fans boo and cheer.

Most of the show's works whimper and sigh.

Especially irritating is the first thing you see when entering the show: a bland, full-color wall-hanging of baseball cards spelling out Diamonds Are Forever. Steeeeee-rike! Why not something that greets you with a shout: Hey, we're talking baseball here!

For the most part, the works are pieces whose subject happens to be baseball. That doesn't make them baseball.

A weather vane bat is a nice touch, capturing the game's Americana. So is a miniature church, with its stained glass windows featuring baseball scenes.

Also on the walls are texts from Jacques Barzun, Roger Angell, Thomas Wolfe and others. They give a sense of the game, but only a partial sense--not the sum of the parts.

A few of the subjects even seem out of place.

What is a guy who looks like Jesus doing with a bat in his hand waiting for a pitch he can drive hard somewhere?

What is a naked man doing taking a swing with a bat in his hand? It takes a brave person to play in the nude.

And where does a dead umpire, lying prone and alone between second and third base with his head in a pool of red, fit into all this? Say it ain't so. Kill the ump is still just an expression.

What's this saying about baseball?

The show gets better in the back rooms. There you find the memento case, a little humor (bloopers are baseball, too) and videos.

The memento case exudes baseball tradition, giving prominent display to Babe Ruth, something of an artist himself, who used baseball as his canvas and the long ball as his brush. The case features Ruth hawking underwear, watches (wrist and stop), Raleigh cigarettes (less nicotine, less throat irritants) and Quaker puffed rice and wheat. The case does not, however, include any of his bats. Odd. He was, after all, the Sultan of Swat, not the Prince of Products.

In the video room, fans can find Abbott and Costello doing their "Who's on First?" routine.

There's George Carlin and Penn and Teller. Robert Klein does a salute to Minnie Minoso, who played in five decades and led the American League 10 times for being hit by a pitch, a record. That's another part of baseball's attraction. The sport opens its gates to the odd, the offbeat, the myths. And duly notes such events.

It's a sport that finds room for any record. Somewhere in baseball, there is room for a record of most pinch-hits by a left-handed hitter in parks with artificial turf during day games. That's not much of an exaggeration. The show misses the fans' love affair with statistics.

And where is Casey, might Casey, the cleanup hitter in baseball nostalgia. The only place he shows up is in Penn and Teller's video clip, in which Penn swiftly reads "Casey at the Bat" while Teller is suspended over a bed of knives.

Even after walking around this exhibition for two hours, it is easy to leave without getting a real sense of baseball, only disjointed fractions.

One art work does, however, distill the game into one scene, one frame, one inning. It's worth the price of admission.

It is Lewis Hine's stark black-and-white photo of an alley in a Boston tenement, 1909. Children are hitting and pitching. And watching. There are no bases. No grass. No uniforms. Just a ball, a bat and a feeling. There is cobble and concrete. A horse-drawn wagon sits to the side, sort of a rolling bleachers, while lines strung between the buildings hang cotton clothes over the playing field.

This photo talks baseball.

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