Returning baseball to the gritty old days

October 28, 1997|By Howard Kleinberg

MIAMI -- Baseball is a wonderfully sentimental diversion. Despite those long stretches of loathing over player strikes and games that take too long to play, baseball somehow remains ingrained in the souls of its addicts.

It's what made ''Field of Dreams'' such a poignant film.

The film, and its predecessor book, W.P. Kinsella's ''Shoeless Joe,'' trifled with our emotions by evoking a past of a conjured purity. The book sanitized the sport's past because we wanted it that way.

''Is this heaven?'' Shoeless Joe asked Ray Kinsella in the book and movie. ''No,'' said the naive romantic who built the Field of Dreams, ''it's Iowa.''

The field has moved.

One could imagine that sometime early yesterday, a former minor-league catcher, a guy who beat around baseball in buses for most of his career, a man who wears a blue collar in a game of gold chains, turned to someone close to him and asked: ''Is this heaven?''

''No,'' Florida Marlins manager Jim Leyland would have been told by someone with tears in his eyes, ''this is Florida.''

''Same place right now,'' Leyland probably would have said.

Despite the talents of his players, despite the envious observations that tens of millions of dollars put the Marlins where they are today, and despite the sneers of a TV ratings-infected media, the spotlight that shone on baseball's new champions shone brightest on a man who will be 53 years old in December.

As he took his triumphant lap around Pro Player Stadium here after barely defeating the Cleveland Indians in a dramatically played deciding game of the World Series, he carried a Florida Marlins flag, waving it to the adoring, celebrating crowd.

Jim Leyland, of Toledo, Pittsburgh, a dozen minor-league towns and now South Florida, brought back to baseball that which it needed most: a sense of its place in history.

For one bright, shining moment, baseball no longer was a boardroom business. It was grit and determination, delirium and tears, pulled hamstring muscles and spectacular fast balls.

It was everything W.P. Kinsella said it would be.

Howard Kleinberg is a columnist for Cox Newspapers.

Pub Date: 10/28/97

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