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For the Love of the Game

We have discovered baseball. Oh, sure, we’d played it on the Wii, but that’s not much of a simulacrum: You’re standing in your living room swinging a remote at a screen while your avatar bounces in anticipation, like a goober. Also, there’s no fielding. For a long time, neither of my children understood that baseball involved catching. Maxine still doesn’t really get that baseball isn’t only about smacking a ball. (To be fair, neither did Barry Bonds.)

UP AT BAT: Maxine, 3, practiced her swing this summer.

But this summer, we went to Grandma’s, where there is a giant, green suburban lawn. Thanks to various permutations of visiting relatives and Wisconsin friends (Hello, Rachel from JCC camp, you lightning-fast base-stealing sneak!) we often had a Wiffle Ball game going. Josie learned the rules of the game; she turned out to have a good swing and a decent arm. Maxine spent most of the summer sitting on the steps, sobbing at our collective cruelty in not letting her stay alone at the plate, swinging like a porch gate, for nine innings straight.

I’m thrilled that Josie loves the game as much as I did. (And I hope Maxie will too, once we no longer have to pry each individual finger off the bat.) One year in the ’70s, I was the only girl on my Little League team. My mom sewed a “women’s lib” raised-fist patch on my cap, discombobulating the less-enlightened dads. I was in dusty, competitive bliss. But then I lost the ability to slide into a base. One summer I could do it without thinking; the next summer I felt gawkily awkward, as if my entire body had been injected with Novocaine. The ground seemed terribly far away. Where did the legs go? Did you lean back and then kick out, or throw yourself sideways? That was my last year as a player. Thirty years later, I loved the notion of Josie taking up my girl-with-a-glove mantle.

Later in the summer, we visited Bubbe in Newport, R.I. She lives in walking distance of Cardines Field, a historic stadium believed to be one of the oldest ballparks in the United States. Once upon a time it hosted barnstorming Negro League games; now it’s the home of the Newport Gulls, part of the New England Collegiate Baseball League. (I loved the names of the teams: the Keene Swamp Bats! The Vermont Mountaineers! The Manchester Silkworms!)

And ach, if you thought I was nostalgic for the small-townness of Fire Island, you should have seen my plotzy reverie at Cardines Field. Tiny stadium! Kids called onto the field for dance contests and Hippity-Hop races! Every spectator handed a photocopied sheet of Gulls cheers and songs! Color commentary by a young boy with a Rhode Island accent so thick you could slice a quahog with it! Gully, the Gulls mascot, in a dingy white plush seagull suit, doing the running man!

Tickets were $4 per adult, $2 for seniors and the military, $1 for kids. But we got in free, because a beaming member of the Gulls organization proffered free tickets as we approached the gate. We ate popcorn and strawberry ice cream. Maxine cheered heartily for whoever was at bat, no matter which team he was on. “Get a hit! Catch the ball!” she shouted enthusiastically, if nonsensically. I explained that we were rooting for the guys in the white uniforms; when they were at bat, she could yell, “Get a hit,” but when the guys in green were at bat, she should yell, “Catch the ball.” Maxie was silent for a few minutes. Then, just as there was a lull in the game, she screamed at the top of her lungs, “Only white guys get a hit!” Uh, whoops.

Now, back home, I’m checking out great new baseball books for kids. For some reason there’s a bumper crop this year. At the top of the mound is “We Are the Ship” by Kadir Nelson (Hyperion, 2008), the true story of the Negro League. The title comes from a quote by the League’s founder, Rube Foster: “We are the ship; all else, the sea.” And in keeping with that idea of a close community surrounded by hostile waters, the book is narrated by a collective voice, a fictional player who speaks for the entire league and knows its history. The illustrations make the book: Oversized paintings, they are simply ravishing. I also loved “Keeping Score” by Linda Sue Park (Clarion, 2008), a moving novel about a 9-year-old Brooklyn Dodgers fan, set during the Korean War. Josie, who loved checking the count on the scoreboard at the Gulls came, could relate to the notion of scoring a ball game as a way to feel as if one has some control over the outcome. And a story that hinges on the suffering of soldiers during wartime is as relevant now as it was in the 1950s. Another novel we enjoyed was “Six Innings” by James Preller (Feiwel and Friends, 2008), an action-packed story framed by the six innings of one Little League game, about the relationships of the boys who play.

When you get right down to it, Shakespeare’s “Wooden O,” the theater as metaphor for the world, might as well have been about a ballpark. Baseball — when you tease the game itself apart from its racist history and steroid-addled, big-business present — is everything we want from sport. The late George Carlin, in his classic monologue comparing baseball and football, had it just right. Baseball begins in the spring, the season of new life; football begins in the fall, when everything’s dying. Football is all about downs: “What down is it?” Baseball is all about ups: “Who’s up?” In football you get penalties; in baseball you make errors. Football has hitting, spearing, piling on, personal fouls, unnecessary roughness; baseball has the sacrifice. Football is rigidly timed; you never know when a baseball game will end. Baseball spectators are like people at a picnic; when you watch football, said Carlin, you find that at least 27 times you’re capable of taking the life of a fellow human being. In football the objective is for the quarterback “to be on target with his aerial assault, riddling the defense by hitting his receivers with deadly accuracy… with a sustained ground attack that punches holes in the forward wall of the enemy’s defensive line!” The object of baseball? To go home. And to be safe.

Write to Marjorie at [email protected].


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