Framing a Game of Asymmetry

GEORGE F. WILL

April 05, 1992|By GEORGE F. WILL

BALTIMORE — Baltimore. -- Recreation, as Bart Giamatti liked to say, is re-creation, an attempt to renew ourselves according to some standard, to make a vision palpable. Thus, paradoxically,

recreation implies both leisure and what Mr. Giamatti called "a rage to get it right." The people responsible for the Orioles' new ballpark did.

It was an architect who said God is in the details. Could have been a baseball person. "Baseball people," Mr. Giamatti said, "have the keenest eyes for details I have ever known" -- this from a professor of poetry. Hear baseball people dissect a batter's swing, or catalog minute variations in a pitcher's release point or deplore the way a shortstop by leaning betrays the kind of pitch that is coming.

Three related reasons why the park is receiving standing ovations from critics are its urban setting, its asymmetry and its intimacy. All these suit it to the ceremony of sport and especially to baseball.

The park speaks well of Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who again has provided proof that government can do things right. One of the primary shapers of the park is Orioles owner Eli Jacobs, a carrier of the torch of baseball traditionalism. Another shaper is Orioles President Larry Lucchino.

Baseball is, as Mr. Giamatti said, "strenuously nostalgic," but not for a pastoral past. Baseball's codification occurred not in a pasture near Cooperstown but in a Manhattan meadow where in 1845 Alexander Cartwright -- baseball's James Madison, its greatest constitutionalist -- laid out a diamond with the bases 90 feet apart. Western philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato, and baseball's evolution has been but footnotes to Cartwright.

Baltimore baseball history will henceforth be made where much history has happened. Gen. Rochambeau's French forces camped at Camden Yard en route to Yorktown in 1783. At 3 a.m. Feb. 23, 1861, President-elect Lincoln passed through Camden railroad station, which is just beyond center field, on his stealthy journey to Washington. Lincoln passed through Camden Yards in November 1863 traveling to Gettysburg, and in April 1865 going home to Springfield.

The center field bleachers are near where the first Civil War fatalities occurred. Southern sympathizers fought with Massachusetts infantry that was passing through Camden Station en route to Washington after the attack on Fort Sumter (where both sides together fired 4,000 shells and killed no one).

Oriole Park is not the first built on sacred soil. Second base at Cincinnati's Riverfront stadium is on the site of the birthplace of Roy Rogers. The Orioles' new center field was once the site of a saloon where George Herman Ruth, Sr., sold nickel beer and dime soup.

The foul lines in Oriole Park are different lengths, the outfield wall is 25 feet high in one stretch, seven feet elsewhere. Good. Baseball has blithe disregard not only for the dictates of clocks but also for numerical or spatial symmetries. Even baseball's numbers are odd -- three strikes and you're out, five ball-and-strike calls make a full count, nine players to a side, nine innings to a game, get 27 outs and you can go home -- unless there is then the impermissible symmetry of a tie.

Bradd Shore, an anthropologist, notes baseball's social

asymmetry: One team never confronts the other. Nine defenders confront one batter and at most three baserunners at a time. So Oriole Park, with eight angles in its outfield wall, is a suitable frame for an asymmetrical game.

It is the most observable game -- players are dispersed on green -- and should be seen up close. We make buildings, then they make us, and Oriole Park will make baseball fans by making the game's elegance and nuances as observable as they now are only in Wrigley Field, Tiger Stadium and Fenway Park, the parks built before the world went mad (World War I).

Mr. Giamatti, who rose from Yale's presidency to the splendor of baseball commissioner, said that we associate leisure with happiness and leisure at a sporting event with a shared absence of care. Mr. Giamatti hinted ballparks can be intimations, or echoes or remnants, of paradise.

A ballpark can be an active ingredient in transforming a crowd -- a mere aggregation -- into a community. In an age when religious ceremonies are decreasingly central to most lives, and in a republic in which civic rituals are purposely few and spare, sport can satisfy a yearning for ceremony. Baltimore's jewel of a

ballpark is worthy of such yearnings.

It already has been the scene of one small ceremony. Late one afternoon last August, before the sod was down, at the place where home plate now is, I proposed marriage to the Orioles fan who now is Mrs. Will. Hey, call me romantic, but I wanted Mari to know that in my heart she ranks right up there with baseball.

George Will is a syndicated columnist.

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