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IN THE BALLPARK : Learning to Love Baseball, Even If You Hate the Game

April 04, 1991|CRAIG STANKE

There was a time when I took pride in being a great hater of baseball and baseball fans.

This was in South Florida, a particularly infuriating place, because it has no team and people still talk about baseball. Office, parties, bars . . . they talked about baseball all the time, and the nearest major league team, if you could call it that, was the Atlanta Braves, hundreds of miles away.

The Hot Stove League--this is what Talking About Baseball is called--was a particular sticking point. "The Yankees must get another left-handed bat," people would say. "What about this kid, Rorhschbach, at third for the Astros?"

Vital, important stuff.

Well, not for me. Invitations to spring training games were shunned. Vacation time and the office rotisserie league draft coincided. TV games? Yeah, right.

I nurtured my hatred, prided myself on being a lonely island of perspective in a sea of baseball-mania. I loved loathing the Grand Old Game . . .

And then I went to Fenway.

Trip East. Stop in Boston. What the hell, historic old Fenway Park is only a mile away. Walk to the ballpark. Drink some beer, eat some good hot dogs. Weeknight game, but more than 30,000 fans. Chicago White Sox beat Boston something like 11-6. Five or six home-run balls hit into the net above the Green Monster, the famous wall in left field. Chicago pitcher Tom Seaver wins his 299th career game, scrapping all the way.

Railing against baseball became more difficult. New England natives in the office gave me knowing looks. "So, how was Fenway?" they'd ask, smugly.

I stayed in the medium range of love-hate until I moved to within blocks of San Diego's Jack Murphy Stadium two springs ago and started jaunting down the hill to Padres games.

Five minutes in, five minutes out. Beautiful, modern ballpark with real grass. Kids of my own to watch with. Aisle seats-- always get aisle seats (see below)--out by the visiting bullpen. Tony Gwynn, the hitter's hitter. Benito Santiago, the catcher who throws baserunners out from a kneeling position.

So Jack Murphy cemented grudging respect and led to growing affection for baseball. I still won't watch it much on television. But there is a lot to like about the game viewed up close and personally, even if you're not a fanatic.

Baseball as entertainment, fun and cultural broadening, not life or death. Opening Day approaches. From someone who has been there, academic reasons to go to an Angel game at Anaheim Stadium, even if you don't care where Yankees come from:

Horticulture: Anaheim Stadium has real grass. I do not find this to be as critical as some (you should hear purists talk about domed stadiums or, God forbid, The Designated Hitter ), but it does add something to the experience.

Baseball grass looks nice and smells better than plastic. The dirt under it absorbs tobacco juice; on artificial turf, this most disgusting of substances collects in spots and puddles. Grass generates oxygen. It is--and this is a page straight from "Bartlett's Baseball Fanatic Quotations"-- the way the game was meant to be played.

Music: Forget Roseanne Barr and her national anthem; the sounds at a typical game are mostly benign, even pleasant.

Organ music has been the staple through the years, but Joe Tripoli, entering his fifth season as the Angels' music man, says he will now be operating on a new, state-of-the-art machine that is part organ, part synthesizer, part digital drums and more. The sound system at the stadium has also been upgraded.

Supplementing with some of his own sound-effects equipment, Tripoli entertains with all kinds of fanfares, "charge" themes and also occasionally drops in tunes relating to the player striding to the plate. Example: The Oakland A's $5-million-a-year outfielder Jose Canseco has been serenaded by Pink Floyd's "Money."

Anthropology: People-watching. Weird and interesting persons populate a typical baseball game, on all social scales, from all stations, of all intellects.

There is a scene in the movie "Major League," in which an exulting construction worker hugs a punk rocker. This kind of cross-cultural bonding is not atypical in baseball.

Warm days add a reduced-clothing aspect that appeals to voyeurs, men and women alike.

Physics: The laws of motion, for example. A baseball flies in one direction until it is acted upon by an outside force, either a bat or the catcher's mitt. (Or gravity, the umpire or the wall behind home plate, if the pitcher or catcher is particularly bad.)

Calculate the speed of a home-run ball by taking the velocity of the pitch--usually between 80 and 100 m.p.h.--and the estimated speed of the bat upon contact. Fun for the whole family.

Ponder the curve, created by releasing the ball with a certain spin on it. Scientists once said its movement was an optical illusion. Tell that to a guy who had to face the Angels' Bert Blyleven at his best.

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