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Thursday, October 24, 1996

The Race for Home

This is by way of a confession: I've been peeking at the baseball playoffs and the World Series. Nothing serious, mind you; just a little skulking around the tube to bong the memory of past seasons going down to the wire. You'll recall my ranting some months ago that the old zeal ended for me after the 1993 season. How the front offices (and particularly those remaining scions of baseball's first families) -- once they had taken the first steps toward ending their intramural revenue wars and stopped castigating the players' union -- could have instituted a wild card system and eliminated all incentive for a pennant race like the Giants and Braves had in '93 is bewildering. Drama of that sort, a stretch run of 15 remaining games which neither team could afford to lose -- and didn't, until the Giants failed on the final day -- is something fans gladly wait a lifetime to witness. I'd certainly not seen the likes of it before, in any sport.

The 13 percent fall off in attendance since should mirror the conclusions people have reached about the owners' present attitudes. Tradition, continuity, memory and statistical minutiae, the very stuff of baseball archived and shared between generations, were long a part of the lifeblood of the nation's cities and workers -- and we know what the corporate bottom-liners have done to them; the old ballparks were public monuments, urban pastorale fairgrounds which grew incrementally into edifices of integral civic architecture -- the replicas being built now are testaments to the game's death throes, stage-set annexes to the rebirth of cities as theme parks and the well-scrubbed efficiency of life lived second-hand in the yearning for an idealized past.

After the strike ended the owners offered much solemn talk about their dedication to putting people back in the seats, while at the same time refusing to add a dozen doubleheaders in order to give the 1995 season 154 games and a basis for record-keeping continuity. Perhaps the owners believed their new fan base -- suburbanite boomers -- wouldn't care or notice. The ueber-burgher mind-set shadowing baseball for four decades has finally caught up with it, and with all eyes attuned to the quarterly dividend reports, doubtless only increasing merchandising gimmickry can save the day. Uh-huh. Throw in inter-league play and the possibility of a second All-Star Game to go along with the wild card and the rules that have been implemented to speed up the inherent languorousness of the sport and you end up with professional basketball played year-round. But even Bob Costas could have told them that.

As I say, though, I've been peeking lately. Attribute it to the primeval-slough atavism of a former fan, if you will. I don't know if that's now a generic condition, but in my case it's accurate. Moreover, I can precisely pinpoint the appeal: the ineluctable, mantric roar of a post-season crowd on every pitch. Evidently, such tribal incantation became kindred for me again last week, because a few days later I found myself seated in a theater watching the touring production of Damn Yankees.


The musical, based on the novel The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant, chronicles a rejuvenescent middle-aged real estate salesman named Joe Boyd leading the woeful Washington Senators of the 1950s to the pennant as a result of a pact he makes with the devil.

To those of us who sat in the Griffith Stadium bleachers through the late 1950s, a Joe Boyd-type savior seemed to be the Senators' only hope. The club had never finished higher than fourth since the close of WWII, and of the two winning seasons it enjoyed before leaving for Minneapolis in 1961, its best record was a .502 percentage (potentially good enough for a division or wild card berth these days) and fifth place. The team had finished dead last in '55, '57, '58 and '59, the years I watched them play. Such harrowing and hilarious ineptitude produced the Washington adage, "First in war, first in peace, and last in the American League." The third part we were resigned to as fact, though we never lost hope. I'll not speak for my seatmates' opinions about the second part, but my own sentiments then indicate I've yet to outgrow my boyhood callowness.

The bleachers were part saloon, church, public square and union meeting hall. In the bantering camaraderie of government bureaucrats and forklift operators in those cheap seats in left field, I first beheld D.C.'s Deep South color- and class lines being breached. Jeering at our ill-starred charges engendered crisp solidarity: "Yeah, tha's right Throneberry, I'm talkin' to you. You call 'Faye' a man's name? Gimme that damn glove, fool. G'wan home and cook me and my friend up some food!" Disappointment and infrequent success on the field had similar similitude in the stands; family histories were shared, anniversaries and births were celebrated, and divorces and scrapes with the law elicited their due commiseration. Preparation for Friday night games began in the bars and storefront takeout parlors along Florida Avenue. We gathered in the limp air of summer's dog days in overalls and coats and ties and quaffed revenge on the travails of the week, keeping time and lending harmony to the Flamingoes or Dinah Washington or Billy Ward's Dominoes as the kids in cutoffs cavorted through the fading light outside and the swells moved down the block to the supper clubs and jazz lounges.

A couple of those summers I spent as CIA clerk. At that time the sons and daughters of employees were hired as vacation help (don't worry, I only did it for the money). I worked in a cable-receiving unit and read reports of assassination attempts against Fidel Castro and the first batch of messages detailing the discovery of Soviet missile sites in Cuba. Rumor had it that the Senators' Cuban "bonus babies" players were under surveillance, and thereafter I hung around the pre-game batting cage and looked nearby for spooks taking notes on the significance of Camilo Pascual spitting in his hands and running them through his hair. At 17, during the last season the Senators played in Washington, I committed my first tentative act of political defiance. The agency was in the process of destabilizing Laos, and one day I was asked to deliver a large package to Director Allen Dulles' office. Inside, I discovered, was a topographical map of Laos. I immediately took a two-hour lunch. When I finally arrived at Dulles' office a brigadier general was waiting in the reception area and made a rather exerted inquiry as to where the fuck I had been. A Faustian bargain, as Joe Boyd taught us, does have its reward.


There'll be a lot of glib pronouncements at the conclusion of this World Series about how "baseball has come back." I won't begrudge an acknowledging nod to the baseball-is-life crowd: As a marker for the depths of the nation's psyche, the game has enabled us to reclaim our innocence and the pristinity of our ideals. The long narrative of baseball becomes reverie and reverie becomes our history.

The disconnect in that history reveals baseball's current problems. The urban, blue-collar origins of the sport have been dismembered, and yeah, when the concerns of working people are again addressed, the health of the game can be restored. The ascendancy of Bud Selig and his gang are merely an outgrowth of the pattern etched years ago by the O'Malley, Stoneham and Griffith clans. I'll forswear a Jackie Chan leap and decline to insinuate that the corporate lunacy of holding cities economic hostage began with that impious trio of baseball owners. I'll simply await the surely forthcoming decision of the owners to sign a collective bargaining agreement with their own workers.

Baseball, as Tony LaRussa maintains, will survive because it's better than all of us. To anyone who has ever loved the game, the mysterious geometry of billowing right-angles and triangular muscularity burrows to the bone. Even the bilious among us admit to its lingering enchantment. I must confess that I watched every second of the Series' fourth and fifth games, and it appears the old daydreams of this middle-aged child of midcentury are still intact.

My fantasy, if you don't mind my sharing, has an expansion team in Washington again. Over the course of one winter I perfect a knuckler and make the squad as the short-relief man. The writers dub me "Instant Niekro." The season winds down to two outs in the bottom of the ninth in the last game of the league championship series, and I get the call. But then, how else would you have it? Naturally, we are playing the Yankees. The crowd is on its feet, a congregation rustling out of the pews of time, the roar moving over me like some old a capella song drifting buoyantly down the track of years. My catcher positions himself, his glove a target of dreams. I peer in at the batter and have the feeling I've been preparing for this all my life. Are there any words adequate to this moment I wonder, and then just before I start into my windup I glance out toward left field, to the cheap seats, and the only voice in the stadium is my own: "First in war. First in peace. And first in the American League."

Copyright John Hutchison 1996
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