May 4, 2014

CHIUSANO | Why Baseball Is Beautiful

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By SCOTT CHIUSANO

I almost wrote this column about Donald Sterling, but then I realized that everything that needs to be said has been said (if anyone wants to really hear something unique about this story, listen to Bomani Jones’ interview on the Dan Le Batard Show). Also, I’m getting kind of sick of the NBA, and should the Nets be eliminated from the playoffs by the time this column runs, I’ll really have no reason to watch it anymore.

Yesterday I was watching the NHL playoffs with my friends (who all hate hockey), and one of them mentioned that the only sport more boring than hockey is baseball. So in honor of baseball season getting underway, and of the Mets being above .500 at the moment, I’m going to try to prove him wrong.

One of the best hitters to ever play the game, Rogers Hornsby, once said this of baseball season: “People ask me what I do in winter when there’s no baseball. I’ll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring.” There’s something about the first baseball game of the spring season that is hard to beat. It’s a night game and there’s a cool March breeze, making it that just in between under armour and short sleeves weather where either way you’re feeling that breeze cooling the few beads of sweat forming on your forehead because the brim of your hat is pulled down just a bit too tight.

The floodlights don’t make you feel quite like you’re in the spotlight, but they’re enough to cast your shadow on the clay-brown dirt of the infield. When you really lose yourself in the game, when the pitcher’s windup becomes the strings of a marionette, you’re his puppet, his leg kick pulls the string that forces you to creep one step forward, he lands and so do you. Out of the corner of your eye the shadow has settled into ready position, merged with the not-so-cleanly trimmed grass, the tips of the blades just now turning from brown to green and shivering as the breeze picks up.

Sometimes you have to squint to catch the ball’s flight, because the faint yellow of the lights clashes with that tiny white dot, and only the spinning red seams allow you to pick the ball out of the dark night that is continuing to cover the field. It’s a fastball for a strike and the echo of ball on leather is electrifying. The catcher holds it there for a few seconds, as if to preserve the echo just a little longer; it lingers in the air along with the pine needles that have started to flutter to the ground from the trees that loom above the left-field wall. The breeze has picked up.

The ball is back in the pitcher’s glove and everything starts over again, but no, that’s too simplistic, because it isn’t repetitive, there is no cycle, the pitcher winds up again and you’re moving with the same creeping forward motion but it isn’t really the same because maybe it’s a curveball this time and you’re squinting, squinting to see the rotation. And once you recognize it there’s something in you, maybe it’s those invisible marionette strings that seem to control every one of your steps again, something that triggers a slight movement to the left this time instead of your routine shift to the right, and maybe that’s what makes the difference.

Off the bat it looks like a hit and the left-fielder is charging hard anticipating the bounce on the lip of the left field grass, and the players in the dugout rise to their feet in unison, the same way you would in Church when the Priest rises from his knees. They all do it together but none of them realize that anyone else is doing it, it’s a collective individuality that can’t be replicated anywhere. The shells of sunflower seeds fall from their laps, they sound like hard raindrops finding the ground. But the ball never makes it to the outfield. It was that one movement to the left, that slight deviation from the routine that everyone thinks is so rote and insignificant. Now you’re one step closer off the bat and there’s only time for a dive and your feet never really leave the ground because they’re anchored by the spikes that dig divots into the dirt. You never leave the ground but at the same time you do, or you feel like you do, for a moment you think that maybe you can fly. You can’t. But somehow ball finds leather, even you are surprised; it’s a magnetic attraction that’s impossible to control, but right now you are controlling it, you’ve mastered it and the ball is still stuck in your glove and the force holds. You rise and with your rise comes the fall of the players in the dugout; they dust the seed shells off the bench and return to their seats. You dust off your pants, but there’s still the faint outline of the dirt, not quite disappearing yet. A reminder.

Baseball isn’t boring. It’s beautiful.

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