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Time to celebrate the star of sports at the All-Star break — baseball

Baseball is more than a game. It's real stories, real quotes, real heartaches and real grass, in our own backyards.

July 09, 2012|Chris Erskine
  • Few sights are more iconic in baseball than Wrigley Field in Chicago.
Few sights are more iconic in baseball than Wrigley Field in Chicago. (Nam Y. Huh / Associated Press )

We're circling the sidewalks around Chicago's Wrigley Field on a recent summer night, the Cubs out of town (perhaps banished, perhaps disowned), and I'm explaining to my 9-year-old how the very best ballparks have their own recognizable sets of acoustics.

The murmur of Wrigley is different from the strumming of Fenway, I tell him, which are both different from baseball's other vintage opera house, Dodger Stadium.

"They are as different," I tell him, "as root beer and wine."

When all of a sudden the little guy and I come across groundskeepers replacing the Wrigley Field grass. Great gobs of discarded sod rest in dumpsters outside the heavy Sheffield Avenue gates.

"Nothing is as obnoxious as other people's luck," F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, as if summarizing the zeitgeist of a baseball fan.

Now finally, we have a little good fortune of our own.

So we smuggle away a small rug of the sod and plant it in my sister's suburban Chicago yard, kick it, water it, spritz it with holy water — Old Style beer.

For ever after, this will be her Zen garden, a symbol of serenity and peace.

And should my sister ever feel the urge to misplay a fly ball or boot a routine grounder, she has just the spot to do it — her own little patch of Wrigley.

It's serendipity. It's cursed. It's baseball.

The more obscure the factoid, the more likely I am to remember it.

Know where Babe Ruth batted in the 1918 World Series opener? Ninth.

Know who was dubbed the Roamin' Roman, among other nicknames, when he was with the New York Yankees? Hint: He was a center fielder with a taste for top-heavy talent. That's right, DiMaggio.

Who was the pitcher who could "throw a lamb chop past a wolf?" Lefty Grove.

Who invented the doughnut bat weight? Elston Howard.

What kind of ivy is planted at Wrigley Field? Boston, of course.

Of course.

Football may be better in the moment. Basketball appeals to more kids. Hockey has the best brawls ("There'd be much less violence if you just gave every player a puck," notes Canadian actor Eric McCormack).

But of all the sports, baseball treats us to the best stories — the goof-ups, the heartbreak, the curses, the quotes.

Baseball isn't just a sport, it's Shakespeare in the park. It rewards confidence, punishes hubris, defies physics. Baseball burns daylight. It makes mad the guilty and appalls the free.

In an impatient world, it forces us to slow down, to sit idly, to ponder the perfect peanut and the way mustard clings to a sweaty hot dog (quite well).

Baseball is America's best front porch. That's why its resurgence was tied to retro ballparks like Camden Yards, now 20 years old. It's why stadiums returned to real grass, after brief, soulless flirtations with organic polymers.

Baseball is of the earth. The players we like best war-paint themselves in infield dust and their own sweat. Talk about lamb chops. Our favorite players finish the game as if breaded. They play like kids on the last day before school.

Baseball is full of mysteries. It has more questions than answers. Why does a curveball curve? Was that really a balk? What's so fun about a fungo?

It's why the MVP of any franchise isn't the leadoff man, or cleanup hitter or some zany left-hander. It's the team's play-by-play announcer — half historian, half thespian, the link between baseball and the average listener.

The great franchises, the ones with the most stubborn fan bases, all have had legendary announcers. Red Barber (Dodgers, Yankees), Mel Allen (Yankees) Jack Buck (St. Louis Cardinals), Harry Caray (Cardinals, Cubs, bad domestic beer).

It's why, if the Dodgers don't have a plan in place for that awful day when their current concertmaster relinquishes the stage, Lord help us all.

"Baseball players are smarter than football players. How often do you see a baseball team penalized for too many players on the field?"

Jim Bouton

"The secret to managing is to keep the guys who hate you away from the guys who are undecided."

Casey Stengel

And now we pause briefly for baseball's company picnic. They call it the All-Star game, and it's the best All-Star contest of all, even though it lasts 15 hours, is desecrated by silly derbies and once ended in that most un-baseball of outcomes, a tie.

Bloated. Magical. Maddening. Splendid. Serendipitous.


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