BASEBALL: DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER

FOR ME, BASEBALL is the summer pleasure. The game stretches in my mind back to the sun-ruled days of the late Fifties, those summers when Texas writhed in the grip of a deadly drought. The earth cracked and opened, and sometimes a ball I was chasing would lodge in one of the cracks and the runner would take an extra base. We never made up a rule to cover that. I remember the Game of the Week on television- always from the East, since there were no major league teams west of the Mississippi -and the raucous voice of Dizzy Dean murdering the King’s English with his ol’ pod-nuh. Pee Wee Reese. On a clear night, the radio brought me the brilliant career of Stan Musial in distant St. Louis. Musial always seemed to be hitting one “way up, way up on the pavilion” at Busch Stadium. I wondered what a pavilion was.

There’s no pavilion at Arlington Stadium, but there is a huge new Scoreboard that stretches from right to left field and comes with the loudest loudspeaker in creation stuck up there beside Diamond Vision, a giant TV screen. It’s still possible to enjoy baseball at Arlington Stadium, but the pleasure comes harder these days.

On weekends, Diamond Vision brings us This Week in Baseballwith Mel Allen. This is unnatural, of course, since TV is one of the things you go to the game to avoid. In the first place, televised baseball is a mess. As Roger Angell points out, television foreshortens the field, scrunches up the players until the center fielder seems to be looking over the pitcher’s shoulder and robs us of the spacious loneliness of the game. This is a game for loners and eccentrics, a most un-teamly team sport, and seeing it with your own eyes you understand why a player like Roberto Clemente belonged in the outfield, where his very position reinforced his fierce aloofness. TV gives us none of this.

I try to watch batting practice, but I can’t concentrate. Mel Allen is booming about trades made during the off-season. Most of the trades, it seems, are motivated either by a team’s heartless desire to dump an aging player who wants more money or by some mercenary player’s brazen hold-up demands, depending on your point of view. Mine is that the whole money question has diminished the pleasure of the game by making it less of an escape and more like real life, the life in which we sweat letters from the IRS and whine for the raise we deserved last year. Fans are not naive; we have always known that the real gods of the game made much more than the guy in the stands and have deserved it; their cushy salaries were a mark of their nobility. All fans know Babe Ruth’s remark, upon being told he was making more money than President Hoover: “Yeah, but I had a better year than he did.” But that was Babe Ruth. Now, a utility in-fielder hitting .235 may pull down $150,000 a year, and we have to read all about it. In Bang The Drum Slowly, pitcher Henry Wiggins must sell insurance during the off-season to make ends meet. Don’t look for Dave Winfield to show up at your door this winter peddling Blue Cross/Blue Shield.

The Rangers can’t be blamed for every glitch afflicting today’s baseball, most of which have to do with change. Baseball fans hate change. The real purists would banish expansion teams like the Seattle Mariners and the Toronto Blue Jays on the grounds that new teams expand the number of players and thus dilute the quality of the player pool. But expansion doesn’t worry me as much as mobility. In this regard, baseball has mirrored the American experience all too well over the past decade. Where once a Joe DiMaggio or a Ted Williams would spend his entire career with the same team, linking together two generations of fans, the stars of today, conversant with stock options and deferred income plans-are as mobile as the white-collar slaves of any conglomerate. How can Craig Nettles, the captain of the Yankees, be exiled to the San Diego Padres along with Goose Gossage, who would have added five years to Ron Guidry’s career? Dave Parker to the Reds from the Pirates? Amos Otis from the Royals to the Pirates? Tom Seaver left the Mets, came back, then left again, and Pete Rose-the very symbol of the Big Red Machine of the mid-Seventies-took his fading skills to Philadelphia and now Montreal. I have always hated the Dodgers, but they aren’t as much fun to hate now that they got rid of Steve Garvey, who was always too handsome and milk-fed to be real. (Garvey, a typical modern player, wanted to stay in Southern California to further his political ambitions after he retires. Imagine Ty Cobb in Congress.)

The Rangers are losers and likely to stay that way, but I don’t want to sound ungratefill. The pleasures of baseball go beyond the final score, which doesn’t always cling to the memory. Other things do. I recall a 1981 game in which the Orioles’ Jim Palmer was handling the Rangers with ease, during the years when it seemed he would survive the loss of his speed and become a finesse pitcher. Trailing by a run, the Rangers put two men on in the seventh. With two out, Buddy Bell came up and hit a screaming drive to left-center field. If it found the gap, two runs would score. But Al Bumbry, playing a deep center field, raced in and dove. His glove skimmed the grass, and like a swooping gull he took the ball. The crowd fell silent for a moment, then forgot partisanship and gave Bumbry a standing ovation as he trotted to the dugout. Palmer set the Rangers down the rest of the way, but Bumbry had given us something almost as sweet as victory.

And another time: The early Seventies, when Reggie Jackson was a slim young power hitter for a great Oakland team. I was coming back with a beer as Jackson stalked to the plate, spitting those trademark shots. A very drunk, very ignorant woman stood up and made a loud remark about Jackson’s racial heritage. Cowards in a crowd, none of us spoke up to disagree. But at that moment, as if he had heard, Jackson caught all of a fastball and launched it into orbit over the right-center stands. The ball seemed to hang there forever, then dropped. The woman was quiet the rest of the night.

Yes, the Rangers have had their innings. I happened to be at all three of the games during that miraculous week in July 1982 when Larry Parrish hit three grand-slam home runs. And I was there during the ’80 heat wave when old Gaylord Perry pitched on that 113-degree day, with plenty of sweat to help grease his spitball. I don’t remember the final score, just that Perry worked quicker than ever so he could get out of the heat. He won the game. It was the ultimate summer game, probably some kind of record.

You could look it up.

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