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Hits, Runs, Memories, and Dreams

Hits, Runs, Memories and Dreams

by Neal Zagarella

The opening of a new baseball season is a kind of holiday for those of us mysteriously in thrall to the sport. A present wrapped beautifully and tagged with our name. A promise not of one gift, but of a season’s worth of surprises and satisfactions bestowed daily, like the rising of the sun. The herald of spring, and of summer to follow.

Some wait for the robin, some the cherry blossom, for me it’s the blooming of box scores - small collections of numbers and names that tell twenty or more stories each. I am one of those anachronisms that still reads the morning paper, though its news arrives old at my doorstep. I thrill at holding a page full of agate type and searching through these little gems, these kernels of wonder and the attendant statistics that grow slowly from them and tell a much longer, richer tale. And each day, a new and different pageful arrives, from April through October.

For me, spring begins in February, in workmans’ prose, an equipment truck loaded and heading south. It unfolds with the appearance of pitchers and catchers. Next the position players arrive, from small towns and small countries, high schools, colleges and try-out camps. And only then do the games begin.

Opening day is a first kiss, a mix of poetry, possibility and memory. “It reminds us of all that is good, and can be again,” James Earl Jones tells us as the character Terence Mann in the quintessential baseball film Field of Dreams. It offers the follower deep and lasting memories. I cannot forget Tim Wakefield walking from the mound before Aaron Boone’s home run dropped into the left field stands in Yankee Stadium in 2003, a dagger in the hearts of all Red Sox fans. Or broadcaster Vin Scully’s call of the ball that dribbled through Bill Buckner’s legs in 1986, “And the Mets win it!”

And the joyous as well. Detroit outfielder Torii Hunter’s legs forming a V, mirroring the raised arms of Boston police officer Steve Horgan, as he falls into the Fenway Park bullpen, in a vain attempt to catch David Ortiz’s game tying grand slam. Carlton Fisk leaping, waving and willing his game winning home run fair to win the sixth game of the 1975 World Series. Dick Stockton retired last week after fifty-five years of broadcasting all the major sports. What is most enduring from his career is his call of Fisk’s famous smash: “There it goes...a long drive...if it stays fair... home run!” He then let the next thirty-six seconds unfold without saying another word. The noise was the sound of a full house of fans exploding in ecstasy - in Fenway, and in living rooms across New England. Fenway organist John Kiley played the “Hallelujah Chorus.”

In Fisk’s hometown of Charlestown, New Hampshire, one of his old high school teammates climbed the belfry of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and began ringing the bell. Police came, but no arrests were made.

I even have memories of events I was not around to witness. Bill Mazeroski’s home run to win the 1960 World Series over the Yankees. Ted Williams’s homer in his final major league at bat. Bobby Thompson’s shot heard ‘round the world to win the 1951 National League pennant for the New York Giants.

Yes, I remember the New York Giants baseball team though it moved to San Francisco five years before I was born. I remember the Brooklyn Dodgers as well, and two different teams called the Washington Senators. I remember the Boston Braves, my father’s favorite team, and the Milwaukee Braves where Henry Aaron was a rookie. These are all part of the institutional memory of the baseball fan, as are Lou Gehrig, Jackie Robinson and Stan “The Man” Musial.

We learn first with games of catch and hand-me-down gloves. We throw the bat as kids to determine first ups, or spread makeshift bases apart to play games of rundown. We collect our cardboard heroes and then watch them come alive on television screens, and then most spectacularly on the pristine greens of Fenway Park, Wrigley Field or Yankee Stadium.

We grow older, but the childlike feeling does not fade. Willie Mays is still larger than life. Harmon Killebrew and Sandy Koufax still inspire awe. The death of Roberto Clemente, lost as his plane crashed into the sea on a relief mission for earthquake victims in Nicaragua, remains sad, haunting, tragic.

Other fans of a different vintage, have their heroes, their own memories. The favorite Red Sox of my youth, Carl Yastrzemski, Luis Aparicio, Luis Tiant and Jim Rice, are no more or less than an older fan’s Dom DiMaggio and Bobby Doerr, or all the Rocket Rogers, Pedros and Big Papis that have come along since. The game renews itself, metamorphosizes and somehow remains the same.

Every team has hope in the spring, and also trepidation. Each club is just a few “ifs” away from contention, from a summer’s long rollercoaster of joy and pain, hope and disappointment. And also a few “buts” away from disaster. Nothing comes easy in baseball. The best batters have weeks where they wander hitless and mystified back to their dugout. The sharpest pitchers sprain their necks as one of their offerings is launched like a missile over an outfield wall. There is no script, no clock, no referee with the power to call the match over. The champion will lose many times before it grasps the grail.

For me baseball is that most treasured thing, the lifelong friend. The one that shared his crayons and dirtied his knees in my backyard, commiserated and celebrated with me through the wilderness of teenhood, bought me a beer at the corner bar, watched along with me in my first house. Baseball waits on the porch, in a rocking chair. It has changed some, but its face is familiar. I remember it, and it remembers me.

And on Opening Day, from wherever it went off to, it will return again. The conversation will pick up, just as if it had never stopped, because it never has.

Play ball!

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