Baseball is a game of memory, and it returns tomorrow to a place where grass has not yet given way to a carpet. It comes home to a green haven filled with reminders of both heartbreak and happiness, a ballyard called Fenway Park where the cargo of past athletic time refuses to yield to sports’ current themes of greed and arrogance.
Baseball is a mood, a suggestion of sunshine and subway stops that all seemed to lead to Section 16. Once, it was truly the city game, truly America’s pastime and certainly the one sport that bound generations together. Fathers sat with sons and daughters and shared the mellow remembrances of other Opening Days played in earlier, easier afternoons before night stole the game. Then, the shadows of history and reality could be shuffled effortlessly around like so many boxes filled with relics of youth on moving day.
And the stories never had to be anchored in fact. As the calendar moved forward, hits, runs and errors became less important. Mood and memory prevailed.
There, right over there behind the dugout, is where Teddy Ballgame’s bat landed after he threw it in disgust and it hit Joe Cronin’s housekeeper. And do you see the first-base coach’s box? That’s where Dick Stuart bent down to pick up a hot dog wrapper and got a standing ovation because it was the only thing he ever picked out of the dirt with his glove.
The park still rumbles with the aftershock of visions long since gone: Shut your eyes and Joe DiMaggio is still making his last appearance in Fenway. Jimmy Piersall is still squirting home plate with a water pistol. Tony C. is down in the dust, and the crowd’s deathly silence still makes a noise in your mind.
Don Buddin can reappear at any moment. Within your own personal game, Rudy Minarcin, Matt Batts, Jim Mahoney, George Kell, Billy Klaus, Jerry Adair, Clyde “The Clutch” Vollmer, Rip Repulski, Mickey McDermott and Gene Stephens can be the components of your bench.
Baseball is part of history’s menu. It is filled with small slices of youth, adolescence and adulthood, and anybody can order a la carte.
Baseball is not the present ugliness, where rich men called players argue with richer men who are owners over decimal points and deferrred payments. Baseball is not agents or options or no-trade clauses.
It is not whining athletes who play only for themselves and their bank accounts. It is not the corporate set interested in owning franchises merely because of the benefits accrued under the tax code.
Baseball is a passport to the country of the young. It is Willie Mays chasing down Vic Wertz’s long fly ball in the Polo Grounds. It is Lou Gehrig considering himself the luckiest man on the face of the earth. It is the Brothers DiMaggio. It is Jackie Robinson and Number 9. It is the magic of Koufax, the consistency of Seaver, the toughness of Catfish Hunter and the grace of Jim Palmer.
It is a double play turned over in a cloud of dust and metal spikes. It is Captain Carl fouling off the last pitch of a play-off game that started on a splendid October afternoon and ended in a long, cold winter as soon as the ball was firmly nestled in Graig Nettles’ glove.
And Opening Day is a time for all those trophies of the mind to be taken out and dusted off. Opening Day, especially the home opener, means the newspapers once again provide box scores, and life contains one sure sanctuary from the grimness and terror of daily headlines.
It does not matter that this present collection of 24 men in a Red Sox uniform are not truly a team. It does not matter that they lack chemistry, consistency, speed and a fundamental ability to hit the cut-off man or get a runner in from second base without depending on the thunder of a 34-ounce Louisville Slugger.
The moaning of crybabies and players who perform with salary arbitration first in their minds can not drown out the collective noise of generations of fans who love the sport while despising its present state. After all, it is still the best game ever played by men anywhere.
What other sport has planted itself so firmly in the nation’s psyche? What other sport draws people to the radio — one more relic of yesterday — to sit and listen to the long innings of slow summer nights? What other sport plays itself out in front of a fan as clearly as baseball?
You can see who made the error. You can see who got the hit. You can marvel at the clothesline throw the right fielder makes to the catcher, and watch the runner dueling with the pitcher for a slight lead off first.
Football is as predictable as roller derby and as anonymous as a gang fight. Basketball is a spectacle of tall men on a court in a contest where only the last five minutes seem to count. Hockey is brawling on skates. And all of them are played at the absolute mercy of the clock.
But baseball is timeless, and so, too, are its memories. Like the players themselves, scattered about the diamond in position, the memories of baseball can be isolated and called up on a mental Instant-Replay whenever the mood or moment summons: Do it today. Do it tomorrow. Do it 10 years from now, and all the detail, drama, symmetry and scores will tumble out.
Each new start to baseball’s timeless seasons, each Opening Day, provide a fresh chapter in life. The first pitch, the first hit, the first double play or home run become another page in a volume kept by the generations.
So, years from now, long after the disappointment of having no strikeout pitcher in 1986’s bullpen has faded, when all the home runs and dents in The Wall have been rendered meaningless by a lack of base-running ability and an incredibly poor defense, the sad failures of this year’s edition of our Red Sox will not matter.