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Take Me Out to the Ballgame

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The sky is bluer and the sun shines brighter, the grass is greener and the birds sing sweeter when baseball season begins. Words themselves get so excited, they kiss each other, coupled up in phrases like “spring training,” “opening day,” “play ball” and “batter up.”

They are familiar phrases, like relatives, for they have been passed down in the American family for over a century, from player to patron and parent to child. The oldest of all popular American sports, baseball, like no other game, has touched successive generations and bonded them one to another with its shared memories.

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My father introduced me to the game with his memories. He taught me the fundamentals and peopled the imagined diamond of my mind with a slew of all-stars ready to play them. Most were from before my time, some even before his. But like some siblings and beloved best friends, they all had nicknames: the Iron Horse, the Splendid Splinter, the Say Hey Kid, Hammerin’ Hank. . . .

The game’s greatest, Babe Ruth, was also the Bambino, the Sultan of Swat and too many other “nicks” to name here. He played on a lineup labeled Murderer’s Row, on a team later called the Bronx Bombers, in a stadium known as the House That Ruth Built.

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But no matter what their names, the players, like the game itself, have become part of our personal history. As celebrated icons, immortalized in both memory and the American arts, they play on a stage where individual heroics shine best in the spotlight of teamwork.

The best players epitomized a blend of skill and smarts, and in the most cerebral sport, that isn’t easy. With his picture-perfect swing that he doesn’t always know when to use, Darryl Strawberry has skill, but not smarts. Moe Berg had smarts, but not skill. The third-string catcher and CIA spy had no insight at the plate: “He can speak seven languages,” the saying went, “but he can’t hit in any of them.”

The Yankee Clipper, Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio, undeniably had both, and added to that a dose of dedication. When asked why he seemed so excited about playing a doubleheader against the basement-dwelling Browns in St. Louis’ sweltering heat, he motioned to the stands and responded: “Maybe somebody never saw me play before.”

That was long before the song asked, “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?,” in a time before TV took the fans to the park and splintered their attention with other sports.

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In those days, my dad would race with his classmates at recess to the Jewish Daily Forward Building on New York’s Lower East Side, where hundreds of fans cheered a schematic of World Series games. It was posted in the same place, with the same prominence as the election results that declared Roosevelt’s presidency.

Baseball was everywhere. Multi-editions at newsstands gave front-page updates. Kids could peek into poolrooms, where blackboards listed ticker-tape-fed scores. Candy stores and radio shops overflowed with loyal listeners.

But nothing beat going to the game, and getting there early had its rewards. My dad once saw Lou Gehrig go long, 10 for 10 in batting practice, knocking every pitch into the right-field stands. Afterward, players signed the kids’ scorecards, happy to be asked.

These days, the Braves charge extra to watch exhibition game warmups, and overpaid players command hefty fees for autographs. But some stars, like Cal Ripkin, do baseball proud, grounded by early trips to the ballpark with his father that still remain one of his “most vivid--and favorite--childhood memories.”

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I know the feeling. More than once, my father and I shared a private closeness in a sea of roaring fans, all waiting for the incredible to happen.

It was incredible, even on television, when the Cubs’ Sammy Sosa hit a home run that sailed over Wrigley Field’s ivy wall, out of the park and into the apartment behind. It broke a window--a childhood mishap made glorious in the majors--and made instant allegiances in those who saw it.

No matter where we may wander, team loyalty lingers. Like patriotism-lite, it’s the last apron strings of location. In a culture of faxes and e-mail, sports remain one of the few arenas where people can gather together as a human family. There, the lights don’t dim, and talking during the performance is part of the fun.

“Baseball is part entertainment and show business,” observed Hall of Fame slugger Hank Greenberg. Fans want “a good time as well as a good team.”

It’s only fitting that the call up to the majors is termed “going to the Show,” for it’s the most inclusive show we have. It has pervaded all forms of artistic expression, from poems like “Casey at the Bat” to the “Who’s on First?” comedy of Abbott and Costello.

While newsreels captured the actual visuals, films turned them to fables. As a youngster, my father remembers the wonderful way the film “Alibi Ike” opened with a crack of the bat sending a ball over a fence. It was a sight and sound of pure joy, graced with the mingled magic of America’s two great cultural creations: movies and baseball.

It’s a potent combination, from the madcap “It Happens Every Spring” to the musical “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” The classic ones, like the Gehrig biopic, “Pride of the Yankees,” in which Gary Cooper plays “the luckiest man on the face of the Earth,” are handed down to younger viewers like the game itself. It’s no wonder that two best baseball films of recent years, “The Natural” and “Field of Dreams,” both end with a father and son having a catch.

My father gave me my first and most recent mitt. I use the latter to play second base in a coed softball league. My teammates have dubbed me the Magnet, for the ball’s attraction for every body part without a glove.

I once fielded a ball with my face. (Had my mouth been open any wider, I might’ve made the play.) It took an entire season before I could overcome my fear of left-handed hitters, but eventually I reverted from “Please don’t hurt me” back to “Hit it here.” Baseball is filled with life lessons.

I took my first baby steps to my own baseball memories with the Mets. Their closer in the ‘70s was Tug McGraw, whose infectious mantra, “Ya gotta believe!,” caught fire with the fans and ignited a last-place team that went all the way to the seventh game of the World Series. It caused Yogi Berra to coin the phrase, “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.”

Tug’s speeding fastball was named the Peggy Lee for the song title oft quoted by batters when the pitch whizzed by: “Is That All There Is?” But Tug may best be remembered by female fans for the way he slapped his thigh with his mitt whenever he left the mound--a gesture to his wife to show her that he was always thinking of her. Who says there’s no romance in baseball?

I had my first kiss during a class trip to Shea Stadium in New York. (It, too, could have been called the Peggy Lee.) Since then, fireworks night at the ballpark has become a favorite date. This year, the Dodgers have one of theirs on my birthday. (Gee, thanks, guys.) The only thing that could make it better is a pitching duel.

For me, the pitch is the thing. After all, a “perfect game” is one in which the other team never gets on base. A perfect pitch is that rare combination of skill and smarts, of which Braves ace Greg Maddux is the Master. So much of his game is mental, one wonders if, afterward, he has to ice down his head along with his arm.

Maddux on the mound proves there are no boring games, just bad announcers. Their incessant yammering makes it seem like a high-priced catch until contact is made. What they should be doing is calling the pitches (not just the count and not just the plays).

The best callers, Joe Morgan, Tim McCarver, Joe Simpson, know the difference between a fastball and a breaking ball, between a slider and a curve. They tell you what’s been thrown and why, so that when Maddux gets a strike-out on a change-up, after throwing a series of carefully placed fastballs, you’re just as stunned as the batter left standing in the box, shaking his head with awe at his command and choices.

Like pitches, the variations of pitchers are endless. Where Maddux outsmarts the batters, Dodger great Sandy Koufax overpowered them--and he knew it. When asked what he threw in the ninth of his perfect game, he admitted, “Everything I had.”

Koufax was a triumph of both form and function. He looked like a cross between a mythological god and Gregory Peck. His fluid, yet lethal, wide-stance wind-up with its bow-and-arrow delivery once caused Richie Ashburn to wonder, “Was that his fastball, or am I going blind?”

Casey Stengel rated Koufax the greatest in history. “The Jewish kid is probably the best of them all,” he said. It’s hard to dispute it. But one of the best things about baseball is that there are so many bests. After Maddux shut down the Cubs on only 78 pitches last season, you heard the same reverential complaints from the opposing locker room as were heard after Koufax’s four no-hitters: “It’s just plain unfair.” Indeed.

Even with great pitching, the Show has had its share of pacing problems. Weak-kneed Moe Berg once found himself popping up and down from his catcher’s crouch as the pitcher and batter kept calling “time” to get reset. Finally, fed up, Berg called “time” himself and piled his mask, chest protector and shin guards on home plate. “Let me know when these clowns are ready to play ball,” he told the umpire, “I’m taking a shower,” and walked off the field.

Currently, a proliferation of teams in perpetual playoffs render a season’s best record irrelevant. While TV’s endless replays deprive us of the live drama, realignment destroys rivalries, and owners play musical players. It’s as disturbing as the designated hitter that cheats the lineup, and the artificial turf that perverts the outfield grounds like colorized film.

But there’s always a light at the end of the dugout tunnel even in dark times. John Sayles’ film “Eight Men Out” depicted the 1919 Black Sox scandal, when players took payoffs to throw the Series. For Sayles, it showed how “a childhood game pushed our country into a troubled adulthood.” The players banned for life included Buck Weaver, who knew of the fix but didn’t participate. He spent the rest of his life appealing for reinstatement.

The uneven justice finds its current counterpart in the all-time hit leader, Pete Rose, whose gambling indiscretions as a manager continue to keep him out of Cooperstown as a player. (Fine. Don’t induct him as a manager. See if I care.)

Still, baseball survives. It always has, sprinting to successive generations like an uncontested steal: Ty Cobb was a terror on the basepaths, sliding in spikes first. It was said Cool Papa Bell was so fast, he’d have to watch his head rounding second, for fear of getting smacked by his own hit up the middle. Later, pitchers unraveled when Jackie Robinson got on, bedeviled by what he might do. Rickey Henderson, on his best days, still brings that excitement to the bags.

All-stars, like Ken Griffey Jr., whose own father was a player, learn the game from their dads. Junior still does. During one recent terrible day at the plate, he returned to the dugout and the sound of Senior on the phone: “They’re pitching you away. Hit the ball to left!” He did, and it cleared the wall.

Like great players, we remember the great moments, whether we were there to witness them or not. Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” is etched in our collective memory. My father was listening to the radio in 1951 when the Giants’ next-to-last hope hit the second pitch he saw for the game-winning home run that won the pennant.

Suddenly, the announcer was screaming. Soon, everyone was screaming, rushing to their windows, running from their houses: Giants win! . . . A home run! . . . Bobby Thomson! . . . Instant editions declared the news in huge headlines--like a war had started.

Everyone who heard it, shared that moment. It was as if time stood still. Sportswriter Red Smith put it all in poetic perspective: “The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again.”

But it has happened again. It’s even happened here, in the 1988 World Series. It wasn’t easy. It took the wounded Kirk Gibson seven minutes of fending off fastballs before he got the slider he could step into with his one good leg and muscle into the right-field stands.

It was a home run that ranked, not only with Thomson’s, but with Roy Hobbs’ in “The Natural.” Fiction did become reality, David slew Goliath and the injured underdog won. It gave the vicarious thrill of overcoming all odds, and symbolized, at least for L.A., the “Field of Dreams” ideal of “all that once was good, and could be again.”

The Show awaits. It is there that Roger the Rocket will tempt the sweet swing of Will the Thrill, while Gwynn and McGwire chase records. There you can watch the Angels’ Jim Edmonds make the highlight reel with yet another suicide-diving, gold-glove catch. There you could see Hideo Nomo, called the Tornado for his twisting delivery that unnerves batters and recalls the “hesitation” pitch of the great Satchel Paige. And maybe, just maybe, if you’re lucky, you might see one of those supposedly once-in-a-lifetime events: the cycle hit, a double steal, a triple play, a perfect game. . . .

And so we know the answer to the question, “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?” Into the stands with the rest of us, to root for new heroes and to wait for history not just to repeat, but to invent itself, in a game where the pitches and possibilities are endless in the only sport that has no clock. Where sending a ball out of bounds isn’t only allowed, but the grandest slam there is, and where the best thing you can do is come “home” and be “safe.”

At the end of one season, some years back, while suffering the usual withdrawal symptoms, my father presented me with a snowglobe. It contained a baseball scene--a diamond field of players, rimmed with cheering fans, showered with shimmering specs of stardust, like floating fireworks. “So that you’ll always have baseball in winter,” he said. He should have known, with his memories added to mine, I always will.

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Screenwriter-director Devra Maza currently is writing her own baseball movie adapted from her award-winning short story “The Streak: The True Story of Baseball Great Sluggin’ Joe McKaney.”

‘The Show,’ on Video

Going to the Show? Batter up to these baseball-related films available on video:

“Who’s on First?"--Classic Comedy T.V./Burbank Video. (This classic Abbott & Costello routine also appears in their film “The Naughty Nineties.” MCA/Universal Home Video.)

“It Happens Every Spring"--Fox Video.

“Take Me Out to the Ballgame"--MGM/UA.

“Pride of the Yankees"--Fox Video.

“The Natural"--Columbia/TriStar.

“Field of Dreams"--MCA/Universal Home Video.

“Eight Men Out"--Orion.

“Bull Durham"--Orion.

“Angels in the Outfield"--Original 1951 movie. MGM/UA.

“Bang the Drum Slowly"--Paramount. (1956 TV version available on Nostalgia Video.)

“Baseball"--Documentary divided into nine innings. PBS Video.

LOS ANGELES DODGERS

* Home Opening Week: Opening day is Tuesday at 1:05 p.m. against the Arizona Diamondbacks. The series continues next Wednesday at 7:35 p.m. and Thursday at 7:05 p.m. The Dodgers then face the Houston Astros in a four-game series. beginning Friday, April 10, at 7:05 p.m.

* Holiday Fireworks Night: Friday, June 26, 7:05.

* Ticket Information: (213) 224-1448

ANAHEIM ANGELS

* Home Opening Weekend: After opening the season against the New York Yankees Wednesday, the Angels play New York again tonight at 7 p.m. and then face the Cleveland Indians Friday and Saturday, 7 p.m. and Sunday, 1 p.m.

* Holiday Fireworks Night: Saturday, July 4, 6:05

* Big Bang Friday: Fireworks will be featured at every Friday home game.

* Ticket Information: (714) 634-2000


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