Play Ball!

This opinion column appears in the March 22, 2009 Daily Journal. Give your opinion with a comment below.

The trees are beginning to leaf out and the azalea buds are visible in Northeast Mississippi, which means it won’t be long before Major League Baseball season starts.

Spring training camps will disband in a couple of weeks and the teams will head north, many of them to play their earliest games in the cold chill of April nights.

For most of my life, this time of the year has been full of anticipation and promise. In childhood, I lived for it. In adulthood, it has been the pre-season stoking of a singular passion.

“God, I love baseball,” Robert Redford says from his character Roy Hobbs’ hospital bed in “The Natural.” That simple sentence is uttered with such fervent conviction, emotion and gratitude that nothing else need be said. Anyone who shares that love knows exactly what he means and why.

I tear up every time I hear him say it – which is at least once a year.

I planned to watch “The Natural” again this weekend because I needed a heavy dose of its wide-eyed baseball idealism and hero-worship in a universe in which good tops evil and the love of money is eclipsed by love of the game. It’s a soothing antidote to the ethos of the modern-day game.

It is harder this year to get excited about the start of the season. I don’t think it’s just that I’m getting older and jaded.

It became evident to me long ago – when I was about 12 – that baseball players aren’t demigods. That they are otherwise not all they’re cracked up to be as role models became further evident when I read Jim Bouton’s scandalous “Ball Four” at age 15.

But something’s different now. So many performance-enhancing cheaters. So many huge, unbridled egos. So many outrageous salaries paid for by $40 nosebleed seats and $7 soft drinks. So little indication of austerity at a time when it’s the necessity everywhere else.

Things are so bad that Sports Illustrated’s cover story last week was about how Albert Pujols of the St. Louis Cardinals, the game’s best player, has to constantly assuage suspicions that his phenomenal performance isn’t all natural – even when there’s not the slightest scintilla of evidence that he’s ever used any of the bad stuff.

It is at times like these – the endless labor disputes and unthinkable player strikes in the 80s and 90s also come to mind – when those of us who love big-league baseball have to remind ourselves that the beauty of the game will transcend the louts who sometimes play and run it. Major League Baseball will endure, in spite of players and owners who from time to time act like they’d just as soon kill it.

“The one constant – baseball.” Another great movie monologue with James Earl Jones in “Field of Dreams” highlights the historical threads tying baseball and the American story together. This country is 233 years old; professional baseball has been around 140 of those years. That’s a long, long time of interweaving ups and downs.

In the late 1960s, the NFL was ascendant and baseball attendance was off. The inimitable Howard Cosell kept up a steady drumbeat that baseball was “a dying sport” and would soon fall into irrelevance and eventual oblivion. Others picked up on the chorus: Too slow, too cerebral, not enough violent action – out of touch with the times.

Baseball outlasted Cosell and the other doomsayers and flourished as it never had before. It was too deeply ingrained in the American psyche to be cast aside. It was simply too wonderfully made.

It survived and thrived because on little league fields and high school diamonds and even the occasional “sandlot” – what a quaint word – across America and, indeed, across other continents, kids learned to love and appreciate this unique and exquisite game.

Those who find the anticipation, the eagerness for opening day, not quite the same this year as in years past know that ultimately, at some point down the road, it will grab hold of us again, that fervent passion we cultivated in the endless hot summer days of boyhood.

We may resist, but it will find us – in April or May or July or October – and we will be grateful. And all will be well again.

Lloyd Gray is editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at 678-1579 or lloyd.gray@djournal.com.

 

Lloyd Gray/Daily Journal