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Let’s Play 162

So, why is baseball wonderful? Certainly, not because George Will and George W. pretend to be fans. Not on account of any of the hackneyed reasons (absence of time-clock; actual strategy and thinking involved).

Sure, hitting horsehide is allied with spring and renewal. You gratefully breathe in that magical moment, entering the yard for the first time each season — smelling groomed grass, checking the current crop of peckerwood players (spitting, scratching, and talking trash in the dugout, uniforms temporarily spiffy).

There's a sort of Masonic mystery to the architecture of the game. Despite astonishing advances in arm, leg, and lung conditioning over the last century, 90 feet remains the ideal distance for staging a pitcher/hitter contest. And how about determining the arcane but proper path between mound and batter's box?

Of course a third fouled bunt is an out. Separating passed balls from wild pitches is only fair. Ballet has nothing on an infielder's horizontal stab, followed by a winded, blind, muscle-memory toss that doubles up the lead runner.

I'll slam no other sports while extolling our national pastime (that terminology alone has a self-effacing charm). But consider the connection formed between baseball fans and their team roster. I witnessed the mad pigskin adulation for Messrs. Montana and Young, and joined in it. Ultimately, they remained icons; there was awe, but little fellowship, barely any interaction.

Football stars are disguised by their protective garb and the bunched-up nature of their combat. In baseball, each participant is entirely exposed. It's an ancient axiom that if you're assigned to an unfamiliar position, the ball will automatically locate (and humiliate) you.

Exposure extends further. Every tic, grimace, crotch-grab, and twitch is on display. Regulars can recognize, just from the way number 45 adjusts his cap or hurls down the rosin bag, when that head-case, flame-throwing southpaw is about to begin his meltdown.

No other athletic pursuit inspires such empathy, and antipathy, on the part of its followers.

Several times, during the secondary glory days of the Oakland A's, I sat near a gentleman who had made it his business to research details relating to opponents' minor-league affiliates. This permitted him to engage in very sophisticated heckling, along the lines of, “Hope you like those burgers at Stan's in Tacoma!” Woe to ye, who are about to be sent down.

I don't entirely buy the argument that baseball is the quintessential cerebral game, replete with managerial chess-matches. Some choices are inspired, some go down in flames.

Many still endorse “see ball, hit ball.”

It's more of a collaborative endeavor than any other, but you may encounter supernatural one-on-ones within the diamond. The extraordinary “can you top this?” grudge match, pitting the Giants’ Will Clark against the Cubs’ Mark Grace during 1989's National League Championship Series was a gladiatorial case in point.

Have a taste, and stamina, for wild, rapid mood-swings? Baseball will readily deliver a clutch hit to your emotions. I'm still recovering/exulting after last year's most notorious night game. Bonds shattered the home-run record. Great. Except the Dodgers went on to knock us out of the playoffs. Throughout the hour and a half it took me to locate a taxi, I wasn't sure if I'd lost my mule or someone had given me a rope.

Sound is also important. As a refugee from New York, virtually mute West Coast fans confounded me in the early innings. At any park, though, there comes a strange, spooky moment when the stadium grows silent. Duration varies, yet that cryptic torpor occurs at every game.

On the flip-side is the unmistakable, inchoate sonic output of the crowd. Experienced announcers, especially on radio, recognize the need to clam up now and then, letting clamor make its signature statement.

Sluggers' heavy-metal sound-bites? Dot-racing? Please.

Scoff if you will, but Zen can also make an appearance, as it did when the Giants were eliminated by the fraudulent and soon-dismantled Marlins.

A middle-aged, female spectator, two rows ahead of us, held up a blank, two-foot by three-foot sheet of oaktag.

I inquired about it and she sheepishly admitted she’d forgotten her Magic Marker.

“It’s the best sign I’ve ever seen,” I told her. “It can mean anything.” She liked that.

Baseball asks for little (except, nowadays, lots of cash), and lets you take away as much as you desire. To date, as well, I agree with whoever said that, no matter how many times you show up, there’ll always be something you’ve never seen before.

It’s also appealing that classically, you don’t “attend” a baseball game. You take one in.

(Oh yeah, the 2002 Giants will win the West, plus the NCLS, and go on to defeat Boston in the World Series.)

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