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"Baseball represents all that is good in America." --Field of Dreams
Sadly, Field of Dreams did not win the best picture Oscar and no doubt had little chance, but I have to admit to secretly rooting for the "baseball in the corn" film. It captured some of the magic of the game and thereby a piece of my heart.
Monday, on opening day, millions of love affairs like mine are rekindled across the country as the boys of summer take to the diamond again.
Explaining the passion for the sport to an unbeliever is frustrating. The game has led the likes of Hemingway and Updike to try to put into words what makes the game unique. And every spring the bookstores are filled with nostalgia books and new statistics books all meant to satisfy insatiable, almost irrational cravings like mine to read more and more.
But still, I find myself unable to convince the cold-hearted cynics of the world who fail to see the majesty of the game.
Baseball is no ordinary sport. It does not have the genetic freaks of basketball and football. And practically everyone knows a kid down the street or went to high school with somebody who had what it takes to catch the eyes of the pro scouts.
The average fan cannot relate to the Goliaths that populate the NBA and the NFL. I enjoy watching hoops and football as much as any weekend warrior, but baseball stirs something deeper.
Baseball spans America, making heroes of young men from both the cornfields of Nebraska and the south side of Chicago. Everyone who ever played a lick of Little League still remembers the first time they put on their uniform. They remember the first big hit or the first time they blew the heater by the local slugger.
Critics of baseball joke about the fat athletes who could not make it in the "real" sports. But really, closer examination shows that baseball may very well be the most difficult of all the major sports to master.
Imagine the mind-boggling difficulty of hitting a small round ball hurled at upwards of 95 miles per hour from 60 feet away. Eager to prevent the successful completion of that task are the nine men in the field. Assuming you can even make contact (with a rounded bat no less), a swing only 1/100th of a second too late and the ball sails foul. This, of course, does not even account for the pitcher's guile--changing locations of the pitch or putting a nasty spin on the ball that causes it to dive out of the strike zone at the last second.
If you are successful a mere 30 percent of the time, an astounding 70 percent failure rate, you will be immortalized as one of the great hitters of your day.
And baseball never changes. A perfectly fielded ground ball to the shortstop will still nip even the fastest of runners at first just as it did in 1908 (the last time the Cubs won a World Series, by the way). The epic struggle of the hitter and pitcher carries all the potency today as when Ty Cobb first stepped to the plate 90 years ago. And for the fans, Gary Cooper in Pride of the Yankees was just as cool as Robert Redford in The Natural.
The best part of the sport is the fact that it is a game that everyone can enjoy. No red-blooded American can deny the wonder of spending a day in the bleachers at Wrigley Field on a perfect summer afternoon. Eating a hot dog smothered in mustard and sipping a beer while cheering the locals is an experience second to none.
The game stands as the one great constant in America. Presidents come and go, we undergo wars and radical social changes, but baseball remains constant. Millions of Americans, young and old, from East to West, will show up at the parks again this summer, as they always do, and for those that can retire their outside worries for a couple of hours can feel safe knowing that they will be given a glimpse at the magic of the game.
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