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The Greatest Game
Opening Day weekend. It ought to be a holiday. It ought to be an observance by the state, by the great Union that we all can take the day off from the drab monotony of a winter dying, close post offices and banks, and focus on what is truly important in life. Baseball. There was a time in this country when all obligatory action came to a screeching halt because the great George Ruth had hit a majestic moonshot that has, some ninety years later, yet to begin its fall. Opening Day. A reminder that the news does not need to be solely populated with stories of earthquakes and uprisings. It can show, on Opening Day, the potential of a young man to threaten the great numbers of the past. Someone could hit .400, or 61, or throw for a 1.12. Sacred numerals and the legendary works of man that dare endanger them. Opening Day.
A summer’s game played in the cold snap of April beneath misting rains and visible breath. Projections and predictions. Hope and inevitable disappointment for the lovers of the other twenty-nine clubs. The constants from before the birth of our grandparents return. Ash bats, pine tar, the orange dust of a sliding play, the two hundred and sixteen stitches that hold together the most precious of things, the baseball. The running, base to base, inching nearer to the goal, to home. The deception of a curveball that spins faster than the world, biting and disappearing as the batsman swings where the ball was supposed to be rather than where it ended. There will always be three strikes to measure a man. There will always be the leaping, the robbing of a homerun by an outfielder, taking away what was inches from being majestic and beautiful, but has instead become a crushing almost.
The men come, dressed and ready. Clean shirts and trousers, sharpened cleats, and neatly trimmed hair and beards. Come autumn, the shirts and trousers, the hair and beards, all filthy. The cleats dull from running, elbows and knees purple and red from diving and personifying the hero that a young boy wishes he were. But now, in this cold April day, they are ready. The home team, the host, lines neatly in their positions. Each man his quirk, his superstition that will grant the omen of the season. The infield at the ready. Eyes dart left and right centimeters beneath pristine ballcaps. Hands on knees, and the nimble feet of the men ready to move in any direction.
A man taller than Odin walks to the mound. He is a giant, alone in a field that seems to continue into forever. Slowly he approaches his hill, his place that is solely his own and no one else’s. The dark dressed man hands him a golden apple made of leather and cork, stitched by the hands of people for the purpose of being protected. The tall man scoops a handful of the orange dirt of his hill, pressing it into the creases of his superhuman hands. His shoulder spins in the socket. He rubs the ball with a tenderness, a familiarity. He feels the seams of it. He measures the stitches with his knowledgeable fingertips. He begins to warm his arm to the task.
An out of towner comes into the place. He kicks the chalk that denotes the absolute and inarguable lines of fair and foul, digging with his own sharp cleat, his own pressed trousers, his own clean shirt and hat. The white cloud rises and swirls in April’s frightfully cold breeze. He stretches his neck and grips his club firmly and with purpose. He watches the tall man on the hill rehearse his lines. A popping of the catcher’s glove, and the cloud of dirt that erupts from it. He watches the tall man, hoping to learn something that he hadn’t yet in his studies of him. The popping of the catcher’s glove. The out of towner languidly flings his bat from his shoulder, brings it to rest there again, and a second time swings it. He stands in the box outlined for him, spits a brown liquid from his lips, and taps the end of his mighty twig on the center of home plate as if to remind it that he will return to it. But first, he must use his strength, his eyes and legs, the dirty club he has chosen to best the man on the hill. He must better the man on the hill in speed and reaction, force and strength. And he must do it in the tall man’s home, before the thousands who root for his failure.
Those who root against the out of towner anxiously wait in seats and stand at tables far into the field. They drink beer and eat hot dogs, each wearing the number of his favorite player. The one with whom he has chosen to identify for one hundred and sixty-two games. Number 29, number 51, number 33, and the great and long dead number 1. They debate with one another, share stories of past greatness of their man, their player, their guy who fails never. At least, that is how they remember him. They tell stories in hyperbole about giant men who swung redwoods and launched those golden apples four, five, six hundred feet. A great one broke the leather right from the ball, one old timer says. He was there, and he caught it. The edges of it were burned, and the ball was no longer round. Another great player, a third baseman, he says, would make every play. Never made an error, and every putout he could make, he did with a poetry and fluidity of a sea creature. Effortless and perfect, this third baseman was. And he could hit the ball farther than anyone. He was there, the old timer says, when the great third baseman hit his five hundredth homerun. Five hundred, the old timer says; there was a time when that meant something. He tells the stories, and those around him listen as if he were a sage, a shaman, a wise and learned historian of their culture. They listen to these stories about men whom they’ve only seen in distressed and brown photographs. The old timer saw them play, and for that, the old timer is a great man too regardless of how tall his tales may be. No tale can be too tall when told about the hulking number 3, the swift number 42, or the greatest, number 8.
Here, at home, the out of towner is ready, club in hand with the sticky brown of pine tar adhering his fingers in place on the wood. The tall man, the man at the hill, adjusts his ballcap, wipes his face with his sleeve, and looks onto his battery mate with trust. The rooters, the fanciers, watch in anticipation. They watch for the first toss of Opening Day, the new season. Once the ball is thrown, their lives can be simpler. Their lives can be dictated by the pace of baseball. The divisions of nine, the penalties of three, the statistics that measure a man’s greatness inarguably. They wait for the tall man to deliver not only the pitch, but the permission to all onlookers that the summer’s coming is inevitable, and that there will be heros and villains. There will the sounds distinct to the greatest game, there will be smells and revelry. Sadness and glory. The out of towner taps the plate again, looks at it for a moment, and then stares toward the tall man, asking with his eyes for the tall man’s best. The man in dark clothing yells the two most beautiful words of the day. The tall man stands, feet together, hands in his glove. He breathes, and to the delight of all of those asking for summer to come, he throws the ball.
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