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Phil-osophically Speaking: April 2, 2010

My Infatuation With Spring

Spring is here awakening a world of color and life that shimmers in the light of day. The sights and smells of the freshly born season appear, unhurried at first, but soon suffuse everything around it in an ancient ritual older than history itself.

Among other grand events, it is a sure sign that the American pastime is back. “Baseball made me understand,” mused the author Phillip Roth, “what patriotism is all about.” Roth made this observation, when he and thousands of others simultaneously rose from their seats to listen to the soaring notes of our National Anthem.

I’ve experienced this many times. As The Star-Spangled Banner triumphantly echoes across the spacious, far reaches of the stadium there is something thrilling, unifying, that emotionally fuses disparate Americans into one, mighty, indivisible nation.

I was 7 years old when I first attended a major league baseball game. Shea Stadium was still spanking new when I walked through half-lit, cavernous tunnels carried forward by a moving river of humanity until, with the excitement rising to a fever pitch, I emerged into the sunlight to see, so grandly stretched out before me, the fields of paradise.

I don’t think I had ever seen anything, save the ocean that was so beautiful, so vast and so awe-inspiring as a Major League Baseball field. Under the canopy of a blue sky, acres of green grass were exquisitely manicured, the brown, baked base paths set off at 90-foot intervals, small white squares, perfectly set off at right angles, that mesmerized you with its geometrical precision.

On these Elysian Fields, shaped as a diamond, had played heroes as large as any god in Greek mythology. No wonder the scriveners of the sport strived, in florid prose, to describe the intricate subtleties, simplicity and glories of the game that had captivated an entire nation since its hardscrabble days back in the 1870s.

The rhythms of the game had a decidedly anti-modern feel. The conventions had, in an ever-growing time conscious society, freed itself from the tyranny of the clock that imperiously ruled other sports as well as the protocols of life itself. Moreover, its leisurely pace echoed back to the days of yore inviting a philosophical turn of mind among pundits seduced by its unique charms. George F. Will, the wonderful syndicated columnist and long-suffering Chicago Cubs fan, instead of seeing ballplayers fielding their position saw little property owners, right out of John Locke, guarding their turf. It was, for sure, an overextended metaphor but what do you expect from a rabid fan whose team has not won a World Series since 1906.

It was during the strike-ridden season of 1994 when I made a pilgrimage to that shrine in Cooperstown, New York, the site of its Hall of Fame and, as the story goes, where the first baseball game was played. Enchanting stuff, for sure, but Abner Doubleday notwithstanding, its just another tasty morsel for the apocrypha of baseball.  But if baseball wasn’t born in this quaint, picturesque village of yesteryear, it should have been. In these poignant environs the novelist, James Fennimore Cooper, was inspired to scale the lofty peaks of language.

With its Sleepy Hollow feel you almost expect to come across Rip Van Winkle snoring comfortably against some great, majestic oak tree. I never did come across old Rip but I did, by chance, encounter Floral Park’s future deputy mayor, Tom Tweedy, a baseball man, enjoying a repast with his family. By his beaming countenance, I could see that his delight in the place mirrored my own.

But not all was well in the Eden of baseball— at least not for me. Even by 94’, I had long suspected some of its star players were using steroids. I had communicated my suspicions to a number of my friends, often in writing, but no one wanted to mar their unfettered passions with such inconveniences. A purist, I disdained but learned to live with such heresies as the “Designated Hitting Rule” and artificial turf. But the use of human growth hormone was too insidious to ignore. What had begun surreptitiously among a few of baseball’s sluggers had, like Pharaoh’s plague, reached epidemic proportions.

It was obvious that steroids and professional sports were as joined to the hip as corruption and Chicago politics. When the truth finally prevailed, the smiling face of baseball, like Oscar Wilde’s Portrait of Dorian Gray, peeled off to reveal its defiled physiognomy. But not before baseball’s record book, the sanctum sanctorum that undergirded its whole architecture was vandalized almost beyond recognition.   

Steroids was not the first blemish on baseball’s escutcheon. In 1919, there was the Black Sox scandal where eight Chicago White Sox ballplayers met at the Ansonia and decided, almost casually, to throw the World Series for a bribe. The Sox, with their great slugger, Shoeless Joe Jackson, baseballs best left-handed hitter this side of Ty Cobb, was as sure as taxes to win. But the fix was in and when it unraveled, Jackson, his head hung low, silently crept out of the grand jury room when a small boy, appearing out of nowhere, clutched at his sleeve plaintively crying out to his hero, ‘Say it ain’t so, Joe. Say it ain’t so.’

Baseball’s first Commissioner, Kennesaw Mountain Landis, had a personality as formidable as his name. Like a gun-slinging Wyatt Earp determined to clean up Dodge City, he banished all eight players from baseball for life. Today things are a little different, with its players cosseted by overprotective unions, and the spineless Bud Selig as its commissioner. At the very least Selig, in a show of moral seriousness, could have demanded that the players adhere to Olympic testing standards.

So the game and I (ever the purist) became estranged. But what the heart has once loved, it never forgets. So when spring, as it invariably does, rolls around I can feel in the spray of crisp morning dew, the hush of a clear lonesome night or a long, drawn out sigh of a sunny afternoon, an ethereal longing for a game I once knew and had believed in so deeply. My infatuation with spring, the renewal of the earth, is unceasing but I cannot, even as I embrace the consummate joys of its season, feel but a pang of grief over the memory of a long, lost love.