Baseball Season: Rite of Spring on Our Field of Dreams
According to the calendar makers, the first day of spring is March 20; but in the American culture the first day of spring is opening day of baseball.
That is when the nation throws off its winter Angst and returns to its love affair with what David Halberstam calls “the perfect game.”
My wife and I went to opening day at Dodger Stadium a week ago with our older son and his two sons. That game by now, of course, is history, but I’d like to add my belated comment to those of our sports oracles before it fades from memory.
It was not an auspicious beginning (the Dodgers lost 8 to 1). The San Francisco Giants took an early lead, and after giving up seven hits and three runs in 2 2/3 innings the promising young pitcher Ramon Martinez was yanked with the bases loaded. (By that time I was thinking the Dodgers ought to bring in Roger the peanut vendor, who can throw strikes behind his back.)
The Dodgers’ fortunes went downhill from there. In the fifth inning the Giants scored five runs. At the traditional break in the seventh inning, those who remained in the stands stood and doggedly sang “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” our unofficial national anthem.
We stayed to the end, not expecting any miracle, but simply paying our respects to the game and the home team, win or lose. Any city’s support of its home team is a curious phenomenon; however much we may despair of our hometowns we love our baseball teams.
As the character Terence Mann says in “Field of Dreams,” “The one constant throughout the years has been baseball. . . . This field is part of the past. It reminds us of what has been and will be again. . . . “
It was the 30th anniversary of the Dodgers’ tenure at Dodger Stadium. It is already heavy with history. Before the game several players from the early days were introduced to the crowd--among them Maury Wills, Duke Snyder, Wally Moon; they were all gray.
Wills, who stole 104 bases that first season in Dodger Stadium; Snyder, a hairy-armed outfielder who could throw a runner out at home or belt a pitch over the fence; Moon, who hit those towering home runs over the “Chinese wall” when the Dodgers were playing in the Coliseum.
It was not a sunny day. The sky was a bright pearly gray, with a threat of rain. The playing field was as green as an Irish valley, mowed in a basket weave. Thanks to the winter rains the surrounding hills looked like broccoli. The base paths were ochre.
Before the game a meld of high school bands marched and oompahed and Nell Carter sang the “Star-Spangled Banner” without flimflam, hitting “land of the free” with room to spare.
The 50,000 spectators looked like confetti in the stands. An airplane flew over, dragging a sign that said: HOLLYWOOD TROPICANA. MUDWRESTLING TONIGHT. It was ironic, I thought, that the nation’s sleaziest sport should be promoted at its noblest.
Except for infants, there were few children in the stands. It was a school day. But we saw several men in business suits, obviously playing hooky from their desks. One of them happened to come climbing up our aisle in the middle of the second inning. It was Zev Yaroslavsky, the city councilman. He said he wasn’t leaving. Probably just going to get a hot dog, like everybody else.
In “Field of Dreams” Shoeless Joe Jackson says, “It’s a game . . . The sounds . . . the smells. . . . “
The organist played tirelessly throughout the game, though she found few occasions for playing the spirited “Charge,” usually offered when the Dodgers have runners on base and a long-ball hitter is at bat.
There was the familiar aroma of pickle and onion and hot dog and beer. My wife says most people came to the ballgame to eat. She may be right.
One thing about baseball never changes. The grace of the players. They are superb athletes, every one. You can’t make it in the big leagues if you aren’t. In one of his team’s few picture-book moments Dodger first baseman Kal Daniels, after putting out the batter, threw out a runner at third base. That throw was art--not to mention the third baseman’s skill in catching the ball and tagging the runner. Ballet dancers are not called on to do anything harder.
One ought also to mention the eye of the umpire, who called the runner out. Whether he was right or wrong nobody knows; or, in the long run, cares. Baseball has not descended, as football recently did, to the instant replay, using video to second-guess the umpire’s ruling. Baseball is the last refuge of belief in the human being.
By the way, Zev left in the eighth inning. So did almost everybody else.
But remember: what has been will be again.