A brilliant outlook

April 05, 2003

WAS IT ONLY five days ago that the Orioles lost a fly in the flakes? With the forsythia now abloom and 62 games already notched up across the country, the major-league season feels well under way and as broken-in as last year's glove.

The papers are filling up with those relentless daily collections of wee tidbits from around the leagues that are bare of significant facts but demand reading anyway. Television is offering something for everyone; who knows, maybe there really are Houston fans somewhere out there in central Maryland who care about the finer points of last night's game against St. Louis. That curious radio stillness that instantly signals a ballgame between pitches to the dial wanderer is sneaking back into our cars. The comforting flow of innings is flowing again. The grass is riz.

Baseball pulls us in and it pushes us away. The game in the mind is so pure, and, remarkably, grows purer with age. The game on the big-league field, in contrast, is so full of chemical supplements and cosmic salaries and $30 tickets for mediocre seats - and just noise - that there's hardly any room left over for its considerable and complex attractions.

We care about the fortunes of a group of 25 young men with unimaginable talent - and self-regard to match. But do we really care? Especially at a time like this?

The major leagues form an archipelago of superlativeness. Thirty islands dot the American scene (and surely we're fortunate to have one here in Baltimore). But under the surface of all the publicity that surrounds them lies a far larger world, submerged mountains of baseball. Minor-league ball, college ball, high school ball, Little League ball - and myriad other networks filling every gap between them. This is baseball - truer, in some ways, than the brand the Orioles play. This is the baseball that Americans share among themselves.

This week, this month, millions of young and not-so-young baseball players are opening their seasons as well. Winter muscles are remembering the way to hit the cutoff man. Batting eyes are sharpening. Calluses are sprouting.

The senses reawaken. The smell of loosening leather in your glove, of sweat in the hatband, of damp new grass. Gnats under the bill of your cap. Splashy grounders on an uneven field. The light fading, your arm twitching. Cleats in the mud. That first good line drive of the year.

The pity of it, though, is in our relentless modern drive to organize. We're choking the game, squeezing it. In the land of the free, baseball even at the most local level is suffering from acute institutionalization. Too many leagues, not enough fun. Maybe the best players come through better than ever. But what about the rest of us?

Time was, kids played pick-up, all day, changing the rules to suit the turnout. Maybe right field is foul today, until two more guys show up, or you have to hit a double to get on base (like a poker player needing a pair of jacks or better to open). If you hit it into Mrs. Jones' back yard it's an out - and you have to retrieve the ball yourself. The team at bat supplies the catcher. Or the pitcher. Two swings. No called strikes. Even a complicated version of every man for himself. You keep score or you don't bother. You play and play and play. The ball goes lumpy.

Are we getting elegiac? Well, baseball does that. The memories and the cliches both rise like sap in the spring - and so does the urge to go out and throw the old pill around. It's a comfort, after all, a reminder that you've got another season in you yet.

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