THIS IS the last season for good ol' Comiskey Park on Chicago's South Side -- good 80-year-old Comiskey Park, to be exact. It's the oldest ballpark in the majors -- older even than Fenway in Boston and Tiger Stadium in Detroit and stylish Wrigley Field on the North Side. Comiskey Park will have to go to make room for, of course, a parking lot. The lot will serve the new, space-PaulGreenbergage Comiskey Park nearing completion just across the street. It won't be the same, even if it does have natural grass and good sight lines. It won't have the memories, the history, the ghosts.
"The most wonderful time to go into Comiskey Park is early in the morning. Or late in the day, when everyone has left. You can hear the ball yard whispering, telling its stories. People will tell you it's just the wind, but I don't believe it. Babe Ruth hit home runs there. In a world that doesn't make very much sense, I like ballparks. Comiskey was like life itself." -- Michael Veeck, now president of a class-A team in Pompano Beach, Fla., and son of the immortal peg-legged Bill Veeck, the last great promoter of the game.
Bill Veeck understood that baseball isn't just the national pastime but has to be something of the national circus. The peculiar dignity of baseball has to embrace the undignified, the zany, the three-men-on-third-base plays, the sight of a helicopter landing behind second base and disgorging a team of midgets dressed as Martians . . . . No wonder they cheered that bicentennial opening day at Comiskey when Bill Veeck himself HTC came striding out of the dugout as part of the Spirit of '76. (He was the wounded fife player with the bloodstained headband and natural limp.)
Memories. An old friend recalls: "I saw my first major-league ball game at Comiskey Park. We visited the Chicago cousins every summer and Cousin Dave took us. On the field were players I'd only read about -- like Luke Appling at short. Second base was always my favorite position, maybe because I never had the grace to play it. They always put me at third in pick-up games: good arm and not enough sense to get out of the way of a line
"Anyway, I'll never forget that afternoon at Comiskey. It was a day game, of course. Weren't almost all of them then? Oh, the noise and confusion and hot dogs, and the smell and the gritty South Side air. Wondrous. How grown-up. The real world at last. It sure beat hell out of the aquarium and the museums, even the Museum of Science and Industry with its real-live coal mine. And the colors. For some reason I had thought big-time baseball was played only in black-and-white -- probably because of all those grainy halftones on the old sports pages. Oh, the green of the infield grass. The brightness of everything. The neat insignia of the Sox with the O and the X inside the S.
"Now they're tearing the place down. Afraid if they don't, Tampa-St. Pete or some other Standard Statistical Metropolitan Area will steal the team. But moving across the street will be almost as traumatic. The new stadium will have sky boxes. Air-conditioned, no doubt. Piped-in crowd noise. Martinis and canapes. You might as well be watching the Cubbies. Watching a baseball game from a sky box is like making love in pajamas. Sky boxes belong with the designated hitter and league expansions. Why couldn't they keep baseball down to two major leagues with eight teams apiece -- the way God intended?"
Our old friend expected no answer. His wasn't so much a question as the familiar cry of pain from a past remembered as golden to a present that seems sounding brass -- and to a future that promises to be ever more sanitized and flavorless. Will that future have any room for memory or desire or anything but efficiency?
Will you still be able to smell the stockyards at the new, spiffy Comiskey Park? (Old Man Comiskey's favorite line, much practiced at the usual civic dinners, went something like: "As you know, we lost 102 games last year, and we've been getting a lot of complaints from the stockyards about the strong odor coming from Comiskey Park.") Far from upholding their grand and slightly aromatic tradition, will the shiny new Sox in their shiny new stadium even be aware of it?
Is it baseball that has aged or only my friend? A little of both, one suspects. A lot of both, probably. But baseball cannot escape its share of the responsibility -- not with its designated hitters and sky boxes. The platoon system already has been introduced on the mound. Pitchers now come in at least three categories: starters, set-up men and stoppers, one for each phase of the game. And high-tech bats, too -- as if they were tennis rackets.
Soon they'll be taking the clock to the game -- the way they do to football and basketball -- and the essence of baseball will be gone: its pastoral timeliness, its natural pace.
If there's hope, as George Orwell wrote in "1984," it lies with the proles. That is, with the South Siders. They'll be serving sushi at Wrigley Field any day now if they haven't started already. If there's hope for baseball, it may lie with the minors. The best chance of escaping the coming sky box era may be found in homey little ballparks like Ray Winder Field in Little Rock, where you can still see Captain Dynamite blow himself up at second base between halves of a double-header. Bill Veeck would have understood. I will miss the old Comiskey Park. But, who knows, rising right behind the storied ghost will be a new house of dreams. It may be empty at first but it, too, waits to be filled with the stuff of legend, and to be seen as it should be: through the eyes of a 10-year-old.