The sky is bluer and the sun shines brighter, the grass is greener and the birds sing sweeter when baseball season begins. Words themselves get so excited, they kiss each other, coupled up in phrases like "spring training," "opening day," "play ball" and "batter up."
They are familiar phrases, like relatives, for they have been passed down in the American family for over a century, from player to patron and parent to child. The oldest of all popular American sports, baseball, like no other game, has touched successive generations and bonded them one to another with its shared memories.
My father introduced me to the game with his memories. He taught me the fundamentals and peopled the imagined diamond of my mind with a slew of all-stars ready to play them. Most were from before my time, some even before his. But like some siblings and beloved best friends, they all had nicknames: the Iron Horse, the Splendid Splinter, the Say Hey Kid, Hammerin' Hank. . . .
The game's greatest, Babe Ruth, was also the Bambino, the Sultan of Swat and too many other "nicks" to name here. He played on a lineup labeled Murderer's Row, on a team later called the Bronx Bombers, in a stadium known as the House That Ruth Built.
But no matter what their names, the players, like the game itself, have become part of our personal history. As celebrated icons, immortalized in both memory and the American arts, they play on a stage where individual heroics shine best in the spotlight of teamwork.
The best players epitomized a blend of skill and smarts, and in the most cerebral sport, that isn't easy. With his picture-perfect swing that he doesn't always know when to use, Darryl Strawberry has skill, but not smarts. Moe Berg had smarts, but not skill. The third-string catcher and CIA spy had no insight at the plate: "He can speak seven languages," the saying went, "but he can't hit in any of them."
The Yankee Clipper, Joltin' Joe DiMaggio, undeniably had both, and added to that a dose of dedication. When asked why he seemed so excited about playing a doubleheader against the basement-dwelling Browns in St. Louis' sweltering heat, he motioned to the stands and responded: "Maybe somebody never saw me play before."
That was long before the song asked, "Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?," in a time before TV took the fans to the park and splintered their attention with other sports.
In those days, my dad would race with his classmates at recess to the Jewish Daily Forward Building on New York's Lower East Side, where hundreds of fans cheered a schematic of World Series games. It was posted in the same place, with the same prominence as the election results that declared Roosevelt's presidency.
Baseball was everywhere. Multi-editions at newsstands gave front-page updates. Kids could peek into poolrooms, where blackboards listed ticker-tape-fed scores. Candy stores and radio shops overflowed with loyal listeners.
But nothing beat going to the game, and getting there early had its rewards. My dad once saw Lou Gehrig go long, 10 for 10 in batting practice, knocking every pitch into the right-field stands. Afterward, players signed the kids' scorecards, happy to be asked.
These days, the Braves charge extra to watch exhibition game warmups, and overpaid players command hefty fees for autographs. But some stars, like Cal Ripkin, do baseball proud, grounded by early trips to the ballpark with his father that still remain one of his "most vivid--and favorite--childhood memories."
I know the feeling. More than once, my father and I shared a private closeness in a sea of roaring fans, all waiting for the incredible to happen.
It was incredible, even on television, when the Cubs' Sammy Sosa hit a home run that sailed over Wrigley Field's ivy wall, out of the park and into the apartment behind. It broke a window--a childhood mishap made glorious in the majors--and made instant allegiances in those who saw it.
No matter where we may wander, team loyalty lingers. Like patriotism-lite, it's the last apron strings of location. In a culture of faxes and e-mail, sports remain one of the few arenas where people can gather together as a human family. There, the lights don't dim, and talking during the performance is part of the fun.
"Baseball is part entertainment and show business," observed Hall of Fame slugger Hank Greenberg. Fans want "a good time as well as a good team."
It's only fitting that the call up to the majors is termed "going to the Show," for it's the most inclusive show we have. It has pervaded all forms of artistic expression, from poems like "Casey at the Bat" to the "Who's on First?" comedy of Abbott and Costello.
While newsreels captured the actual visuals, films turned them to fables. As a youngster, my father remembers the wonderful way the film "Alibi Ike" opened with a crack of the bat sending a ball over a fence. It was a sight and sound of pure joy, graced with the mingled magic of America's two great cultural creations: movies and baseball.