The Virginian

All Hail the Small Ball

It is good to have passions in life, especially when they involve sitting in the sun, drinking beer, and thinking the long thoughts of a spring or summer afternoon.

By 3.28.02

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Baseball fans around these parts are approaching full rut, as they no doubt are around the nation and indeed the world. Spring training set the sap to rising and the approach of the season opener has them salivating like a drunks in a wine cellar. This is of course all for the better. It is good to have passions in life, especially when they involve sitting in the sun, drinking beer, and thinking the long thoughts of a spring or summer afternoon.

I must admit that baseball doesn't do much for me, besides putting me to sleep. The cause is surely tied to upbringing. A love of baseball -- like a love of music, reading and religion -- is probably best instilled while young. In my youth football was the sport of choice for most of us, along with chasing girls and smoking whatever weeds happened to be found growing along the local railroad tracks. I never saw a pro game until my mid-30s, or at least one that can be remembered.

As the years began to collect, however, the attraction of baseball became clearer, and so I tried to develop an addiction in the early 90s when the Colorado Rockies were born. True excitement was in the air, thanks largely to the fact that Denver is a rabid sports town. The Rockies played their first seasons at Mile High Stadium, and all the games sold out, meaning you watched along with 75,000 or so fellow fans. Mass hysteria reigned and for casual observers this was a good thing, as was the fact that the team's permanent digs, Coors Field, was something of a boom box. Balls sailed into the stands with great regularity, keeping us helots in a constant mood of excitement and celebration.

But for the more devoted baseball fans, the glories of the game are clearly found elsewhere, or so it seems to a guessing outsider. A devotee probably reaches a higher plane when finally discovering the game is more about pitching than hitting. Similarly, a true fan loves the game's languid pace, which allows one to observe the various small dramas taking place around the diamond and out in the far stretches of the outfield. The subtle shifts of position -- advances, retreats, and sometimes the merest lean -- reflect the game's precision. These subtleties also increase the sense of anticipation, a quiet but steady winding of the spring. Release comes when the batter connects, a small physical event that unleashes an instantaneous flurry of reactions. Then back to waiting. Scratching. Spitting seeds. Peering at the sun. Thinking things over. Much like life itself.

This is quite different from football. For one thing, you can see what baseball players actually look like while footballers are hidden beneath their armor. The latter creates a sense of anonymity and impersonality -- only by their numbers do we know them -- and, to me at least, a sort of time warp. To this day I have an ingrained feeling that the football players I watch on television are older than myself, even though pros are half my age.

Football is, to be sure, a great fall sport: a feat of organized violence undertaken in the dying season. While most of us love the passing game, the heart of football is the brutal run through the line of scrimmage and the ensuing pounding. The greatest games are played in mud as a cold rain falls -- perhaps with some heavy wet snow mixed in. Football is a game of the earth.

Baseball, by contrast, is played by kids in caps starting in the season of re-birth and stretching through the summer months. Perhaps its greatest moment is when the ball is lofted high into the great blue sky -- rocketing away from the earth and disappearing into the sun. Life being what it is, the ball falls back to earth. But for just for a few seconds that's the last thing on your mind.

None of this is to say that everything related to baseball (and its dowdy cousin, softball) is peace and light, as a recent story in the Miami Herald reminds us: "An executive with the Sports Authority sporting goods chain was arrested Monday, accused of choking a 74-year-old umpire unconscious at a Coconut Creek softball game, police said." The dispute followed a questionable call at second base and brings to mind similar dramas familiar to any parent whose kids play any type of ball. We had our share: The grandfather who cold-cocked a coach after a football game, and an opposing lacrosse coach who ran down one of our players, tackled him, and put him in a headlock. These were sidelines-clearing events and, in the lacrosse coach's case, cause for disciplinary action. While one can hardly praise such activity, they do make for interesting memories.

Our sons avoided baseball, though it was popular with some of the neighborhood boys. One neighbor's son played on a team whose pitcher was known, according to this neighbor, to sometimes break down and cry during games. That kid's name was Dylan Klebold, who would later participate in the Columbine High School slaughter.

Baseball doesn't work its magic on everyone, but then again what does? My interest dropped a year or so after leaving Colorado, and died totally after the omnivorous Ted Turner bought several of the Rockies' better players in his quest for world domination. Yet in these troubled times one more fully appreciates the peaceful arts that bring comfort and respite to our unquiet minds. In a few days the new season will begin, and Americans will fill the stands, enjoy the sun, and only occasionally scan the sky for crop dusters.

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About the Author

Dave Shiflett is a writer in Midlothian, Virginia. His real CD "Time Goes Rushing By" -- as immortalized on Instapundit.com -- is now available.