Baseball situation leaves tempered fan struck speechless

August 31, 1994|By MIKE LITTWIN

At lunch yesterday, we talked baseball. Nobody mentioned the strike.

It was as if by silent agreement, the way, say, many Republicans agree not to mention Dan Quayle's presidential hopes. (Tell the truth, if you had to vote for somebody from Indiana, would you vote for Dan Quayle or Dave's mom?)

Instead of the strike, we talked about Sandy Koufax a lot. And Halberstam's book on the '64 pennant race. And Bob Gibson's nasty scowl and J. R. Richard's even nastier slider.

We argued about how good Don Drysdale really was, as if that matters. Maybe it does matter.

At least, we weren't talking about health care. Or Don Fehr. Nobody brought up Kato. (This year, we get the O. J. trial instead of the World Series. The good news is, there won't be any night games.)

And yet, surprisingly, the conversation didn't make us happy.

You see, the thing is, you can't even talk about baseball now with any real feeling. It rings hollow. There's too much subtext. If we didn't mention the strike, we didn't mention the pennant race either. In case you forgot, there is no pennant race.

It's the end of summer, and what are we supposed to do? Baseball is the traditional summer extender -- the Hamburger Helper of sports.

It's still July every time Rafael Palmeiro steps up to the plate, meaning, for that moment, I can convince myself I've got a couple of weeks at the beach to look forward to.

I confess. I miss it.

Look, I'm not one of your baseball poets. I hate those guys. I cringe whenever I see George Will use the words elegy and baseball in the same sentence. (To be honest, I cringe whenever I see George Will, period.)

I don't think of baseball as a metaphor for life. Don't talk to me about symmetry or the pastoral game.

But I do miss it.

I don't miss it like I would, say, rock 'n' roll or Sirajul and Mujibur. There's something ever so much more subtle than that at work.

For as long as I can remember, baseball has been the perfect summer background noise. Now, life is like a movie without a soundtrack.

I miss the noise.

I miss the noise of the radio, the noise of Jon Miller telling a story I'm only half listening to, and the noise of those in the crowd who think every pop-up is a home run.

Baseball is the ultimate radio vehicle. You don't need to see it to appreciate it, like you do a slam dunk or Helen Delich Bentley's face lift. The game is imprinted on our brains. If there's a two-hopper to the shortstop, who throws the ball to first, nobody has to draw you a picture.

If it's not the most exciting game, it is the most consistent. It's a game that celebrates the fact that it's always there and always has been. It has this Cal Ripken-like dependability. What else in life gives you that?

Now, even baseball doesn't give you that.

In its proper place, baseball is the game you talk as much as play. Isn't that the part you miss?

Talking baseball provokes much more passion than the game itself. I have a friend whose theory is that nobody actually likes the game of baseball. It's too boring, he says. People like box scores. And stadiums. And Boog's barbecue. They like comparing Willie Mays and Ken Griffey Jr.

He's exaggerating. I'd pay actual money to see Frank Thomas swing a bat right now.

But he has a point.

It was explained to me recently that many fathers and sons might have nothing to say to each other if it weren't for baseball. He said that was the real danger of the strike.

It's the perfect thing to get you past the important stuff that nobody wants to talk about, the stuff about, you know, feelings or something.

Or, for that matter, homework.

This conversational link becomes even more important when the son is a grown-up, and dad can't take you out in the backyard and toss a few. Instead, you can talk about how the manager can't handle the relief pitchers or what a catch Brady made the other night.

The link goes back to a time when you mentioned baseball cap and you didn't mean salary cap.

I don't want to talk about it.

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