"What is it about baseball?"
She pulled the quilt to her chin and nestled beside me on the couch. The dishes had been cleared and a candle flickered steadily atop the table behind us. A dull immediate radiance emitted from her soft features, carved strategically for slow seduction. This was supposed to be a special night.
Every now and then the towering willow out front would cast a long shadow across the living room as a set of headlights passed. It was, however, the steady blue glow of the television, that gave the room its cozy ambiance.
Eddie Perez stepped to the plate. Eighth inning, bases loaded.
I traced the outline of her slender wrist with two fingers, anxiously awaiting Rod Beck’s wind-up.
She leaned closer.
My heart beat faster.
Beck missed the mark by a matter of inches and Perez, with one swing, essentially ended the Chicago Cubs miracle season.
"Sure you want to discuss this tonight?" I replied, watching the backup catcher float around the bases.
"You’ve been watching this game all day," she argued, her voice edged with salacious pout. "Just tell me what it is."
It was actually the second game of the evening and, for the record, the second time I’d been asked the question that week.
"Purity," I started, contemplating how best to continue.
Perez crossed home and hugged his teammates.
"Don’t patronize me."
Beck stroked his Fu Manchu.
I was dead serious. Unfortunately, it’s a rare individual who will accept that answer in tacit agreement.
I launched into the Coles notes version of my exhortation: meandering from the game’s textural metaphysics to the glorious legends it has spawned to the profound impact on one of the world’s most dominant cultures.
"They analyze this sport to death," she protested, watching the Padres-Astros pre-game show linger in the background. "I fail to see the purity in anything so full of its own importance."
She missed the point. To baseball people, there is nothing else. It’s the little things the little boy mentality breeds-flowing seamlessly through the subtext of any phenomenon-that give it purity. The basics, in sync with the equilibrium of the universe, are beauty in its rawest form.
It’s men with names like Roberto Clemente and Ty Cobb, christened to do but one thing on this planet. For those not blessed, it’s nicknames-The Say Hey Kid, Gaylord, Rusty, Rollie, Whitey, Three Finger, and Doc-that may as well be Bashful, Happy, Sleepy, Dopey, Sneezy, Grumpy, and well… Doc, that add grain to the script. As the seventh inning stretch will testify, baseball literally whistles while it works.
When it speaks, its voice is enchanting. Its language was developed from the necessity to interpret nuance. The Eskimos have 40-odd words for snow; baseball has three times that for the home run and it’s still not enough.
"But it’s only that way because that’s how they make it," she added, watching Tony Gwynn hit the cut-off man at second, emphasizing the word they as if "they" were some undetectable omnipresence watching over the game.
She wasn’t that far off. The only thing greater than the people who have played major league baseball are the people who have talked about it. The sport is rich in timeless commentary. "How much more can you give us Big Mac… how much more," will smoulder in the transcendental depths of our collective imagination next to "one giant leap for mankind."
Baseball commentators read as much significance into the fact Pete Schourek, the controversial Red Sox choice to start game four against the Indians, is an anagram for RUTH KEEP SCORE (do it yourself if you have any doubts), as a newly anointed bishop will read into Timothy 4:21.
In one sense, it is bound mawkishly by tradition. Look no further than the inanely functional costume players wear to work every day or the joy with which pundits celebrate Bill Buckner’s historic mishap in juxtaposition with Dimaggio’s 56-game hitting streak for evidence. It’s just everyday subtext in baseball’s grand scheme.
"You’re reading too much into it," she stuttered. "You realize that it’s not all planned. It’s not some giant script."
But therein lies baseball’s beauty. There is no proof of a giant script-not yet. No creator could have made baseball’s history unfold the way it did. It has unfolded naturally. That is what makes it pure. It’s a microcosm of what the world ought to be.
She wasn’t buying.
In desperation, I quoted Joe Morgan. Nothing. I quoted W.P. Kinsella. Zilch. I quoted Crash Davis. Naught.
I discussed the significance of Jackie Robinson-a more meaningful figure than Rosie Grier or Malcolm X-in smashing the continent’s colour barrier. Baseball fans didn’t care that Robinson was a nigger off the diamond, the player could hit a baseball as well as any human being in the game and that was good enough for those that counted.
And if you still want to argue cultural impact, consider the fact they named a disease after the sport’s iron man, Lou Gehrig.
She still protested, arguing for the fluidity of soccer.
I wound down my sermon, mentioning rally caps, spit balls and artful misogyny.
She was lost.
Fenway’s Big Green Monster?
The infamous Mendoza line.
She just didn’t understand me.
So convinced of baseball’s faultlessness, I lost the will to go any further. I’d made the speech a dozen times before and I would make it a dozen times again. I never know when or how to conclude it. I usually end with the argument that there is not a more difficult skill to master, in this lifetime, than hitting a round ball with a round bat (do it yourself if you have any doubts).
At that moment, Jim Leywritz launched a game-winning shot and trotted exuberantly to the dugout. I thought back to Sammy Sosa sitting despondent in the dugout earlier that evening.
It suddenly dawned on me.
The Padres game ended. They’d take a 2-1 lead into the next day’s contest.
"Dugouts!" I shrieked with joy. "Baseball is the only sport that has a dugout!"
The dugout is where a player can turn for safety just like baseball is where we can turn in moments of doubt. Sidelines, boxes, corners and benches simply don’t compare to the cozy parameters of a dugout. It’s where players can revel in a moment of splendour or draw solace in agony. It’s stage left but still in the midst of battle. It’s where a man can hug another man in celebration of a moment of brotherhood and not worry that the moment will be labeled anything other than an ephemeral plutonic bond.
She pulled the quilt past her nose and stared blankly.
We watched the day’s highlights, over and over, in silence for the next three-and-a-half hours.
"Are you gonna stay over tonight?" she asked quietly after witnessing another tearful player, #39 etched on his cap, wish Darryl Strawberry a speedy recovery.
I shook my head.
She drove me home. Neither of us said anything in the car. Bob Dylan’s "Blowin’ in the Wind" filled the silence. I thought about Strawberry. She thought about her short black dress, shivering, waiting for the heat to kick in.
We pulled into my crescent.
The Strawman would be OK. Gehrig bore it for him a generation earlier.
I kissed her delicately on the cheek. A tear welled in her eye. She recognized the finality of the peck.
The moment probably meant something. If I had been a pitching coach about to pull her in favour of a left-hander late in game six, I would have known what to say. I would have, at least, tried to make the moment larger than it really was.
"I’ll call you sometime," I said lamely.
She knew I had to get up the next day to watch the Big Unit pitch. She finally understood.
"What is it about baseball?"