Poetic language of baseball turns to money talk

September 18, 1994|By MICHAEL OLESKER

The two of us, son and father, went to the baseball field when we heard the news of the strike, as though returning to the scene of a shrine.

In little pieces, the games go on. The professionals, owners and players, can have their self-destructive temper tantrums, but the amateurs are still allowed to play a little catch. Let them nurse their egos and their wallets while sons and fathers go to a neighborhood field and find common ground.

"You want to have a catch?"

The son looked a little quizzical. Seasons of all kinds had passed since the last catch. The son, racing through adolescence, through high school and into college, had inexplicably slipped away from catches with the father. The father, sensing his own reluctant muscles, had learned to approach the game mainly from the inside of his head.

This seemed like the perfect time for a change. The father, a devotee not only of the game but of its vast literature, felt this was part of baseball's central poetry: the ageless image of fathers and sons playing a little ball, of the father passing down the legacy of the game, of one generation handing the national heirloom to the next and baseball thus perpetuating itself, sometimes in spite of itself.

Equipment was dug out of a back room, stored away over several years, now feeling stiff and slightly foreign. For offensive purposes, we carried a ball and a bat. For defensive purposes, a refusal to speak a word about the end of the major league season.

"You want to hit 'em first?"

We fell easily into the old rhythms. The son chased fly balls off the father's bat, making each play look easy, then tossed the ball back to home plate on several bounces, not wanting the ball to arrive too hard for the old man to handle.

The son always seemed a natural athlete, but not a natural baseball fan. Twenty-two in a few weeks, he grew up when the language of the game was changing. The father came of age talking home runs and batting averages; the son talked money. The father should have seen the future coming.

"Eddie Murray," the father had pronounced on a spring afternoon when all of us were 10 years younger, "is a future Hall of Famer."

The son's eyes lit up. The Orioles, one year after winning a championship, challenged anew by Toronto, had beaten the Blue Jays moments earlier on a late-inning Murray home run that landed near us in right field.

"How much money does he make?" the son asked.

The father knew, in that moment, that something was wrong.

"Money? What about that home run we just saw?"

The son shrugged, slightly embarrassed to be caught looking at this romantic moment with such an accountant's eye. And yet:

"I just want to know," he persisted.

The father wanted to bequeath poetry to the son: Of Mays' back-to-the-plate catch in the '54 Series, of Brooksie diving behind the bag to take away a double, of Mantle on his wounded knees hitting those rainbow arcs.

The father had grown up wishing to be any of these men, or all three. It had never occurred to him how much money they'd made, not in those distant summers, not when the sports pages meant box scores and not arbitration rulings or the canceling of pennant races.

The son had listened to some of these stories, played his years of Little League ball, and then gone off and done the inexplicable, the unpredictable, the inexcusable: He'd taken up ice hockey, and made a god of someone named Gretzky.

The son liked the speed of hockey, the constant movement, the ballet on ice. The pace of baseball seemed to bore him. The romance never quite penetrated, since he'd been handed the stories simultaneously with tales of untapped raw money.

"Paul Blair made a catch one night," the father would begin.

"How much money did Blair make?" the son would ask, thus killing the mood.

At the ball field now, the son hit fly balls to the father. The game had changed over the years: Now the ball seemed headed for the glove, but had an occasional tendency to sail over it. Now the ball was thrown home with all the old verve, but somehow gave out halfway there.

It didn't matter. Just wearing a glove and running through the grass brought back yesterday, when merely to change one's posture, to imitate Mays' wide-legged stride, or Mantle's gimpiness or Robinson's loose-limbedness, was to imagine yourself inside their very bodies. The dreams of the game can go on, even if the business doesn't.

After an hour, the old muscles asked for time out. Felt pretty good, the father said. The son nodded. We could do this every week, the father said. Maybe some of the son's friends would want to join them. The father had some old pals who might play, and . . .

The son said the ice rink would be opening soon. He said he'd be putting on his skates, getting up some pickup games in the evening.

"But it's only September," the father said. "It's pennant race time."

The son knew better. The son knew, long before the father understood, that the rules had changed. One strike, and you're out. The only important numbers were preceded by dollar signs. In the time when an entire generation of boys' imaginations were being formed, baseball had assumed all the romance of banking.

And now, whenever this strike may end, the game will realize that some people of a certain generation might not be coming back -- because, over the last 20 years, the game never captured them in the first place.

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