The Love Song of A. Ernest Truefan

December 26, 1994|By DENNIS BARTEL

Let us go then, you and I, and imagine: If Major League Baseball owners called to you from the rocks of ruin, would you heed their siren song? Lately this is the question that I have lifted and dropped on my plate, as the option of using replacement players draws nearer.

Should the moment be forced to its crisis, would I stand by deferential and cautious?

Or would I dare to wear white flannel knickers and put back on my cleats?

I should have been a ballplayer scuttling after grounders deep in the hole at short.

And how can I presume that I, whose hair has grown thin, could possibly play in the Bigs? I can only answer by saying that once, a lifetime ago (a quarter-century), I was scouted by the Orioles, as a teen-age shortstop in California.

I still dream of what might have been: In the locker room the players come and go talking of Joe DiMaggio.

Then in a minute I reverse myself and remember that had I, in 1970, been signed by the Orioles and risen through the farm system, and somehow wriggled my way to Memorial Stadium, my job would have been taken by Cal. Then would it have been worth it, after all? Now that my arms have grown thin, I think that perhaps it was best that the Baltimore scout at those Norwalk-LaMirada Pony League games looked at me and (reportedly) said, ''That is not what I want at all. That is not it, at all.''

All the same, if today no one else is going to play ball, could I still play ball? Could I spit out the butt-ends of my age and ways, and hit .216 against Major League pitching, as Major League millionaires do routinely? Ah, but I would not be facing Major Leaguers. I would be facing replacement players, lonely men in shirt-sleeves, like myself. I could probably hit .236.

Not wishing to be full of high sentence, suppose I did pick up the glove again and came back to show you all that I could turn the double play. Would there yet be other overwhelming questions?

My father, a Teamster for a half-century, bluntly reminds me that scabs have never been much tolerated in the U.S. (except when it came to air-trafficking), and in an arena so laden with symbolism as baseball (for the fan, the universe is often squeezed into a ball), a scab -- rather, a replacement player -- may find himself the object of fan-atic venom. It could get dangerous fast. I could find myself a patient etherized upon a table.

But suppose that Major League Baseball owners provided sufficiently for my safety, so that the greatest danger I faced was facing the eyes that fixed me in a formulated phrase (''You filthy scab!''), and dodging objects (e.g., batteries) thrown at me while on the field of play, which at shortstop would be easy.

What then of my present work? I have been measuring out my career in coffee spoons for this past quarter-century. Could I now turn back and descend the stairs of my profession for the sake of a few weeks, or months, or at most a single season, of restless nights playing ball?

As if a magic lantern had thrown patterns on a screen, I suddenly see how a ballplayer's greatness is but a flicker, and for once I do not snicker.

I grow old . . . I grow old . . . I mount my collar firmly to the chin, necktie asserted by a simple pin. I dare not disturb the universe. Am an attendant fan, one that will do to swell a paid attendance by returning to the ball park once Major League Baseball has itself returned.

Or perhaps the day will come when human voices wake me, and I watch as Major League Baseball drowns.

Dennis Bartel teaches writing at the Johns Hopkins University.

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