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FIRST PERSON

Of Baseball, Box Scores and Bonding

May 11, 1997|CHRIS ERSKINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Butler had three hits, the little red-haired girl tells me. "In two at-bats."

"That's impossible," I say.

"Says right here," she insists, pointing to the box score.

It's Sunday morning, and I'm teaching the little red-haired girl how to read the Sports section.

Like a lot of beginners, she tends to start with the first page, then work her way inside. But I am teaching her the proper way to read the Sports, turning to the box scores first, then the standings, then working her way back to the cover page, saving Jim Murray for last, kind of like dessert.

"When I was your age, Jim Murray was God," I tell her. "And you know what? He's still God. Forget Grantland Rice and Red Smith. Jim Murray is the greatest American sportswriter."

"Sure, Dad," she says, rolling her eyes and turning to the American League standings.

Talking to a dad about baseball is like talking about politics with a lunatic, full of passion and loopy observations. It's frightening and funny all at once. And the little red-haired girl eats up every word.

"Dad, tell me again how the Cubs folded in '69 and broke your heart," the 6-year-old says. "Tell me about that."

So I tell her about Santo and Kessinger and how Billy Williams couldn't pull the team together and Ernie Banks was past his prime, which was just really lucky for the Mets, because Ernie Banks in his prime was really something to watch. Willie Mays may have had more talent, but Ernie Banks had more heart. And you should never underestimate heart.

"Ernie who?" she asks.

Poor kid. She learned about baseball by watching her older brother play Little League. Her brother's a pretty good player, of course, but he once spent an entire inning smashing a bumble bee on the dugout bench, then sprinkling it with dirt.

For a while, this turned the little red-haired girl off sports. She assumed all athletes were killers.

"You think your brother's bad?" I tell her. "You should see what the owners do."

"Huh?" she says.

"The owners," I say. "They're ruthless."

"Huh?"

"How about I tell you about the '54 Yankees?" I ask.

"OK."

So we lie back on the couch again, and I tell her about the great New York teams of the '50s, about Berra and Maris and Mantle, some of the finest ballplayers the sport has ever known. In a few minutes, it becomes clear that she's never heard of any of these guys. Not a one.

"You're kidding, right?" I say.

"Nope."

"Where are you from, Mars?"

"Earth," she says.

"Earth? Really? What part exactly?"

*

She was once a promising young ballplayer herself, this kid, an ingenue of the infield, a princess at the plate. She would slap line drives, then sprint for first base in 100 tiny steps, sometimes stopping to rest, but only if she was really tired. Some compared her to a young Roberto Clemente.

Her finest moment probably came in the first inning of the first game when, chewing four pieces of Bazooka, she blew a bubble roughly the size of a human head.

"It got all over my face," she would later tell sportswriters.

But midway through the season, she went into an awful slump. Suddenly, she couldn't hit the curveball, or the fastball, or any other kind of pitch that the coach softly lobbed to her over and over in endless innings on lumpy school playgrounds.

"Swing the bat!" her big brother would yell to her from behind the backstop. "Just swing the bat!"

He had no sympathy for kids who couldn't hit. A ferocious batter himself, he is known for swinging at almost anything that comes near home plate. Birds. Bees. Even pitches 3 feet over his head.

He once swung at a hummingbird 30 feet away. "It was bothering me," he explained.

So, still stinging from her collapse at the plate, the little red-haired girl decided to take this year off from baseball and concentrate on kindergarten and jumping rope.

And, most of all, learning to read the Sports section.

We are on the last page now, running out of standings, running short of roundups. In spring, a Sports section is in full bloom, with baseball and basketball and Preakness previews. But eventually, even a spring Sports section comes to an end.

So she begins to build a tent, laying the Sports pages, one sheet at a time, across my face and stomach until I am completely covered.

"Is it dark in there?"

"Yeah," I say. "Come on in."

She wiggles in next to me on the couch, past the baseball standings and the weekend TV listings, careful not to crinkle Jim Murray. She may be just a beginner, but she knows you never crinkle Jim Murray.

"Ouch."

"Sorry," she says, apologizing for her bony knees before wiggling in a little closer. "There. Now no one will find us."

I try to breathe through the newsprint. It smells like baseball, this paper, like Dodger Stadium in spring, like Wrigley in July. Or maybe it just smells like newsprint.

"You asleep, Daddy?"

"No, I'm just dreaming."

"Oh," she says. "Want me to tell you about the Cubs?"

"Who?"

"The Cubs," she says. "You know, the Cubbies."

"Sure," I say. "Tell me about those Cubbies."

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