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IN THE COACH'S BOX

Hitting the Sweet Spot
By Stephen Lehman

I had never been to Dallas, and I felt certain I could live a perfectly happy and fulfilled life without ever getting Lone Star dust on my very plain, well-worn Tony Lamas. To my mind, just about the only decent things besides those boots ever to come out of Texas were Willie Nelson and Molly Ivins. But when the opportunity arose to attend a conference in Big D last May as part of my real job (you didn't think being editor of a baseball journal paid the rent, did you?), I jumped at it, for two reasons: first, I'd never been to the Ballpark at Arlington; second, Talmage Boston lives in Dallas.

Unless you live in Dallas or are a diligent, long-time reader of EFQ, you may not have heard of Talmage. A successful civil attorney, Talmage is a baseball fanatic—not merely a fan, not just someone who loves the game, but a full-fledged, card-carrying, baseball-fevered lunatic—who, in addition to penning several articles for EFQ a few years back, authored 1939: Baseball's Pivotal Year (Summit, 1995), one chapter of which (on Bill McKechnie) was excerpted in this journal. When I called Talmage to see if we could meet to catch a ball game together, his first concern was how to arrange tickets (and rearrange his busy schedule) so we could see all four Rangers games. I assured him one game would be sufficient—I was there to work, after all—but that was my first tip-off that Texas hospitality is more than just Chamber of Commerce hype.

I arrived on a Wednesday, called Talmage, and set a date to meet for lunch the next day, with a trip to Arlington for a Rangers-Mariners tilt later Thursday evening. That first night, though, I listened to the local game on the radio while watching the Braves and Rockies on TBS (with the mute button on). The Rangers, already winners of three straight, came from six runs down against the notoriously inept Seattle bullpen to win 8 to 7 in their last at bat.
I met Talmage the next day at his law firm, a sprawling enterprise that took up several floors of the Renaissance Tower and employed some 240 attorneys—this was Texas, after all—and he immediately whisked me to his office, which was, by any standards, fairly packed with baseball paintings, mementos, and memorabilia. Talmage was even more gregarious and welcoming in person, something I'd not have thought possible, and he immediately launched into baseball stories: who he'd gotten to meet, interview, talk to, get autographs from. But this was neither bravado nor one-upmanship. This was joy—the pure baseball joy of a little kid who'd had the indescribably good luck of having a major league foul ball come his way a week after breaking in his new fielder's glove.
Trading baseball stories as quickly as we could get the words out, we drove out to The Ballpark at Arlington for lunch at The Front Row (a TGI Fridayıs restaurant) in a booth overlooking the field from above the right-center field upper deck, followed by a whirlwind tour of the Legends of the Game Baseball Museum and Learning Center, a combination Hall of Fame slice and delightful interactive children's exhibit, and the Rangers front office. Then back to downtown Dallas.
I write all this not because it is should be of particular interest to anyone other than me, but to make a point: baseball, or rather, loving baseball, is one of the most powerful connecting forces I know of. It crosses all manner of divides: class, race, culture, and ideology. Loving the game, and possessing that measure of knowledge about it which comes to those who love it well over time, cuts through all that crap. Or at least it suspends it, keeps it at bay for a period of time—say nine innings or so of time, long enough to be human with one another.
I don't mean to belittle the pressing issues of our day, or suggest that baseball is some kind of civic paragon or cultural palliative. We all know that the game often reflects all the pain and conflict and political squabbling of the society. Nor do I endorse using baseball as some kind of drug, some kind of mind-numbing, escapist strategy. On the contrary, as long-time readers of this journal can attest, I believe baseball can and should be used, at times, to clarify in the microcosm the dysfunctions and systemic failures of the macrocosm. But the Pastime has a more significant role to play in society, I believe, than merely mirroring our cultural defects, and that role is modeling potential solutions. And that's what I want to talk about here, because I think the solutions ultimately always have to do with forging common ground, with finding common values from which to grow a larger social dialogue, with seeing each other not first as Democrats or Republicans, capitalists or socialists, or by ethnic, gender, or sexual orientation labels, but as human beings trying to live with integrity and compassion in the physical world. And one way to start along that path is to be in a place of worship and joy where we see each other first as simply baseball fans.
The game that night at Arlington embodied both the sensual joys of baseball and the human connections it can offer. I sat next to Talmage's friend Paul Rogers, former dean of the SMU law school and co-author, with Hall of Fame pitcher Robin Roberts, of The Whiz Kids and the 1950 Pennant (Temple University Press, 1996). Paul and I hit it off right away and, as had happened with Talmage, we started in immediately trading baseball stories. Meanwhile, a strange and beautiful game unfolded before us: Griffey hit a 425 foot home run in the one spot where a ball could actually leave the park, though this particular dinger came up short, and finished the game just a single shy of completing the cycle; the Rangers came from 5 runs back to win yet again in their last at bat, 9 to 8 this time (again, not all that surprising since it was at the expense of Seattle's relief corps, notably the hapless Bobby Ayala). It was a gorgeous night, warm but not hot, neither dry nor humid. Above all, it was outdoors. In the ninth, a fan jumped the railing to help Johnny Oates argue a close call with the third base ump Brian O'Nora (I'd never seen that before), and Juan Gonzalez continued his awesome RBI barrage that has him on track to shatter Hack Wilson's impossible 190 single-season mark. (I know, won't happen. But it's still amazing to see a guy hit like that, night after night, with runners in scoring position.)
Paul proposed the story-telling category of "stupidest things ever to happen in baseball," and began with a tale he'd heard from Robin Roberts (and recounted in their book): In the first game of a doubleheader against the Cubs at Wrigley Field, teammates Johnny Blatnick, Del Ennis, and Dick Sisler spotted Roberts a 2-0 lead. The Cubs came back in the sixth to tie it on hits by Eddie Waitkus, Phil Cavaretta, and Andy Pafko, and it stayed that way until the bottom of the ninth when Roberts surrendered a one-out single to Cub pitcher Johnny Schmitz. A force play followed, but so did another single, to Waitkus again, and Roberts' control deserted him. He hit Cavaretta in the gut to load them up, and then, on the very next pitch, repeated the feat, this time at the expense of Pafko's rib cage. As Roberts started toward the dugout, dejected over blowing the game, Pafko decided to take offense at his free pass and began to charge the mound. First base coach Hard Rock Johnson headed him off however, grabbing his shirt and yelling, "You dumb SOB, he wasn't throwing at you, he just lost the game!"
I countered with something I'd seen in Syracuse in 1984, in a AAA game between the Chiefs and the Rochester Red Wings. Bottom of the ninth, tie score, runners on first and third, one out. The Chiefs' batter smashed a scorching line drive down the left field line which started in fair territory but was obviously hooking foul. The Rochester left fielder, clearly the most fleet-footed of outfield patrolmen, took off like the proverbial bat out of hell and made a diving, back-hand, miraculous catch of the ball about eight feet outside the foul line. The winning run, of course, moseyed home. The left fielder, still apparently unaware of the circumstance, came trotting triumphantly homeward only to see his red-faced skipper, steam rising from his collar like the spout of a screaming tea kettle, emerge from the dugout and plant himself somewhere north of the coaching box, hands on hips, facing his errant charge. The fielder slowed his gait and stopped, the dawn breaking suddenly through the dark night of his befuddled senses, and his head slowly tipped forward until his chin came to rest against the top button of his uniform shirt. There was not a person in the ballpark, not even the most idealistic, baseball-crazed little kid, who would have wanted to stand in that ballplayer's spikes at that moment. Oh, the humanity.
Ten days later and I'm in Wrigley Field on consecutive nights with long-time friend and ballpark architecture maven Philip Bess, author of City Baseball Magic: Plain Talk and Uncommon Sense About Cities and Baseball Parks. (We were joined the second night by Save Our Sox activist Mary O'Connell and EFQ contributor Betty Christiansen.) As in Texas, the home team won while I was there (I've seen the locals lose only in Minnesota so far this year), concluding a sweep of the feared Braves and beginning a two-game thrashing of the pathetic, decimated World Champion Marlins. (The Cubs next swept the cross-town rival White Sox, and their streak stands at nine games as of this writing.) Now I'm a Cardinals fan, and by all accounts I should have been cheering on the visitors in order to bring the Chicago Nationals back to the pack. Yet sitting in Phil's third base line upper deck seats—which, by the way, seemed to be every bit as close to the playing field as the $25 seat I'd occupied in Arlington, yet in the Friendly Confines it cost only nine bucks—I couldn't help but cheer along with the home crowd. The whole experience was simply too intoxicating to spoil by maintaining proper allegiances.
While The Ballpark at Arlington is very pretty, with some truly outstanding features, such as the molded relief metopes of Texas and baseball history adorning the facade, it seems a bit of a mishmash of styles and design; it's not completely clear what the architects had in mind other than to include as many desirable features as possible (desired by just about anybody—the park seems an effort to offer all things to all people). My main objection to Arlington, however, would probably apply to any of the new parks: it's primary focus seems to be to maximize the ways in which the patrons of the game can be separated from their cash. Because itıs a suburban site, parking is plentiful and free (I think), but beyond that, The Ballpark is a hive of consumerist activity, a la the so-called New Comiskey. I suspect the same is true of Coors and Camden Yards and the Jake, though I've not had the pleasure as yet to visit those venues.
Wrigley is decidedly different. To borrow Phil's phrase, itıs still reasonably civilized. You can sit closer to the game for less money, and you can bring your own food into the park as long as itıs not in a can or a bottle. There's no rock and roll blaring at you between innings, no commercials that aren't on billboards on the buildings across the streets. These seemingly minor aspects contribute to what is the biggest difference, however, between where the Cubs play and almost any other ball field: Wrigley is accessible to its community. In fact, it anchors its community: it's located in a city block in a residential urban neighborhood; it's right off the El and numerous bus routes, providing public transportation access to anyone in the city. (God forbid you should want to attend a Rangers game but don't have a car—there are probably shuttles from somewhere to there, but I never caught wind of them.) As in Arlington, it's a friendly environment, but unlike The Ballpark, itıs confined, primarily by the neighborhood from which it arises—hence it's nickname. That trait creates a particular social intimacy that is the embodiment of what I was trying to get at earlier in this piece: baseball as interpersonal and social connective tissue. In a divided and divisive world, something that brings people together to enjoy a beautiful, complex, endlessly interesting contest of wits, physical prowess, and shifting strategies is welcome and much-needed. If it ties them to neighborhood (and city and then metropolitan area, and so on), as Wrigley does, so much the better. For despite the myriad problems it faces, baseball in its best contexts is still all those great things: beautiful, sophisticated, sensual, daring, communal.
I haven't seen my beloved (and mightily struggling) Cardinals yet this year, and I'll miss the chance to catch them at the Metrodome. The only good I can see to come out of interleague play would be the opportunity to see my team in the flesh, even if it happened in that huge blister of a stadium we have in Minnesota. (It's probably just as well that I'll be out of town. The last time I saw the Cards at the Dome was to watch them get pulverized in Game Two of the 1987 World Series. I was the guy with the red ball cap and sour face who stayed in his seat in the left field bleachers for the entire game.) But as consolation, it's on to San Francisco for the SABR convention, where I'll renew old baseball acquaintances and make new ones, and enjoy my first ever visit to Candlestick Park (not 3Com or 4Com or any other Com, as far as I'm concerned). I may live in Minnesota, but I still plan to take a jacket. After that, I'll visit the fountains of Kansas City's Kaufman Stadium (I'll accept that change—at least it's named for a human being) with my father, with a trip to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum there on the side.
All in all, a pretty darn good baseball summer. But I have to tell you: it wouldn't be half as fun without Talmage and Paul and Phil and Mary and my father. For me, the greatest baseball joy of all is the opportunity to share the pleasures of the game with somebody—or somebodies—else.

—EFQ

STEPHEN LEHMAN is editor of Elysian Fields Quarterly.

This column first appeared in EFQ 15:3, Summer 1998

© 1998 Stephen Lehman

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