The game of yesterday begins again this week, with the men in funny flannel knickers and billed caps who more often chew than puff.
Baseball is beloved for being childhood, for suggesting open skies and open spaces, for remaining simple while the outside world--even other outside sports--become ever more complicated and predicated on team efforts, systems solutions, electronic relays. The human relays from shortstop to second base to first--the classic double play--are probably the most group-intensive activities of a most singular game.
The modern world depends upon message centers. The baseball catcher relies on one or two fingers stuck out near his groin. Corporate life demands the appearance of constant motion. The baseball outfielder is expected to stand and wait. Basketball and football require actions memorized and mutually executed, not unlike the precision of a corps de ballet. The baseball batter is all by himself; most of his teammates, not so incidentally, are sitting down. Consider the static nature of a game involving 18 players on both sides, as many as 15 of them doing nothing at most given moments.
The game of yesterday is linear and played within strict limits. Almost all sports have marked fields of play but baseball has lines within lines. Pitchers must throw within inches of a peculiar pentagon; batters must stand within boxes. The action is serial rather than simultaneous, discrete and not diffuse.
Natural ability is better for batting and pitching than brains or higher education. Listen to the superior players forever speak of "hitting it good." I visited the California Angels' spring training camp at about the turn of the '70s, to write a story on the growing number of college graduates reaching baseball rosters. The upcoming generation of yesterday was supposedly changing. There were six college grads, as I recall, in Palm Springs, out of three dozen athletes. Only one of them survived spring to become memorable, a post-UC Berkeley pitcher named Andy Messersmith who later applied his considerable wit to winning contractual disputes. But even now the new wrinkles of free agency and arbitration are confusions for most competitors whose professionalism is play. And while they have business managers to handle money confusions, their baseball managers are usually most endearing when mangling the language; Sparky Anderson of Detroit probably holds the current records for most grammatical errors in a championship series.
The players come of age at 18 or 19, out of high school. While many do attend college for a time these days, they still improve by experience instead of by degrees. They come from small-town places where the roadhouse is the community center and the road signs have been pinged by hunters on the way home, from places where jets do not land and trains used to run. They acquire nicknames from field and stream, such classic identities as Country and Catfish, Bird and Goose, Daffy, Ducky and Moose. The Los Angeles Dodgers' 1985 roster shows two-thirds of the young men having been born in small cities or little hamlets across the United States and Central America.
The "dean" of the Dodgers, Bill Russell, entering his 16th season in the National League, comes from Pittsburg, Kansas, population 18,770; Russell began playing organized baseball at age 18 with the one-time Ogden A's of the Pioneer League. Outfielder Terry Whitfield hails from Blythe, California, a rest stop of 6,805 residents between here and Phoenix. Young Mike Ramsey comes from Harlem, Georgia, population 1,485; he attended Gulf Coast Community College before converting to a life on the pitcher's mound and then converting again to a place in the outfield. Young power hitter Mike Marshall was born in Libertyville, Illinois, population 16,520, starred at Buffalo Grove High School, grew into a size 14 shoe and began his professional career at 18 for the old Lethbridge Dodgers of the Pioneer League. The Ogden A's are now in Pocatello and the Lethbridge Dodgers have moved to Great Falls but the heritage, like the hometowns, continues semi-rural.
Not one of the 39 players on the Dodgers' roster comes from New York City or Chicago or Philadelphia, although three are from the sprawl of Los Angeles sandlots (Bobby Castillo, Ken Landreaux, Larry White). Baseball players--white, black or Latino--seem to grow among the weeds, the hardy natives from an earlier time, when exercise was for fun or fame, not for health discipline or mating display.
Sure, many of the present players talk the good Nautilus talk of lifting weights, like other well-paid performers. Yet baseball players needn't approach the conditioning of wide receivers or even tennis servers. Look at Fernando Valenzuela for every four-day proof that a fine screwball is not a function of diet or jogging discipline. Remember Babe Ruth and realize he must have eaten much more than Wheaties.
Drug scandals are a disguise for the innocence of a nice, quiet national pastime. Piles of statistics mask the simplicity of small boys playing catch with a small ball. The game of yesterday persists, scoreless inning after scoreless inning, April after April, because it keeps childhood alive--in mind, if not body.