Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Temple Beth Baseball

I believe in the Church of Baseball. I've tried all the major religions and most of the minor ones. I've worshipped Buddha, Allah, Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, trees, mushrooms, and Isadora Duncan. I know things. For instance, there are 108 beads in a Catholic rosary. And, there are 108 stitches in a baseball. When I learned that, I gave Jesus a chance. But it just didn't work out between us. The Lord laid too much guilt on me. I prefer metaphysics to theology. You see, there's no guilt in baseball, and it's never boring.
- The opening voice-over of Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon) in the screenplay for "Bull Durham" by Ron Shelton (http://www.imsdb.com/scripts/Bull-Durham.html)

Late Saturday afternoon, with the sun outside starting to melt the inches of ice that had fallen the previous night, I sat nervously inside my apartment watching the television, hoping against hope that Kevin Reese, Ramiro Pena and Chris Basak could find a way to tie their team's game in the dying moments. No, Reese, Pena and Basak do not play for an NCAA tournament team. They were wearing the batting practice jerseys of the New York Yankees, playing the final innings of a Grapefruit League exhibition game against the Philadelphia Phillies.

Don't know who these guys are? Well, that probably means you have a social life. Reese, Pena and Basak will not be Yankees when the team opens up its season on April 2 in the Bronx against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. No, they'll be in Scranton, Penn. or Trenton, N.J., playing for one of the Yankees' minor league affiliates. But on March 17, they had made the bus ride from the Yankees' base in Tampa up the road to the Phillies' spring home in Clearwater. Pena subbed in for Derek Jeter after the captain had taken his three turns at plate, and Basak was the back-up for a back-up, coming in after veteran utility player Miguel Cairo played the first half of the game. Reese actually got to start and play all nine innings.

For Reese, Pena and Basak, the game was very meaningful, as it is one of their few opportunities to show the Yankees (or some other team) that they belong in the Show. For Jeter, Cairo and anyone with a life, the game was meaningless. And yet, there I was, on the couch, watching the game and wincing as the Yanks were unable to muster a final run and fell to a 3-2 defeat, even as Georgetown and Boston College battled in an East Regional pairing of former Big East rivals. Normally, I love watching one of the greedy, soul-less schools that fled the Big East for the ACC lose to a former conference-mate. But not today.

I really did not care that the Yanks lost. Well, maybe I cared a little. No, I was really watching to see Carl Pavano pitch, waiting to find out how he would injure himself and make the $39.95 million invested him continue to spin down the toilet. He survived the outing, but got hammered, taking the loss. He is such a waste of money, Halliburton has to blush.

But still, was it the freak show factor Pavano brings to the table that pulled me away from a day of March Madness? No. Truth be told, if Jeff Karstens and Darrell Rasner (don't worry if these, too, are unfamiliar names, since odds are they won't be on the opening day roster, either) were pitching, I would have watched the Yankees anyway. Why? Because Annie Savoy was right. I don't care about modern dance, so the Isadora Duncan reference is lost on me, I have no desire to worship Buddha, Allah, Brahma, Vishnu or Shiva, and the closest I'll ever get to metaphysics is reading the message in a fortune cookie. But, I do believe in the Church of Baseball, even though a ton of evidence suggests that too many of its clergymen are jacking themselves up on enough HGH and steroids to take down Rosie O'Donnell.

Yeah, yeah, you've heard it all before. How baseball is pastoral, or a symbol of a simpler time, or something else that would get George Will aroused. That's not it for me. I like watching the game. People say it's slow, but these are the same people that watch football games, even though there is five seconds of action for every 45 seconds of standing around (not counting the endless television time-outs). I like trying to manage from my couch. I like watching the chess match between the pitcher and the batter. I like watching a fielder making an improbable catch or throw. I like watching a batter crush a line drive. I also like when bizarre stuff happens, like a home run bouncing off of Jose Canseco's head or Len Barker throwing a pitch onto the netting behind home plate.

Sure, some of the sappy stuff Will gets excited about can be true. I remember watching and going to millions of games with my dad. I was a baseball savant as a kid. I went to my first game at the age of four-and-a-half, and I still remember it. Sal Bando stroked a single past a lunging Gene Michael to give the A's a 1-0 win over the Yanks. A sad afternoon in the Bard household, and one that would be repeated as the Yanks proceeded to lose something like 13 of the next 14 games I attended. But, I came back, again and again. There have been very few things that have stayed constant through more than 35 years of my life. Baseball has watched as people, bad clothing and worse haircuts have come and gone.

So, for the next few weeks, I'll continue to watch Bronson Sardinha, Kevin Thompson and Colter Bean take their last shots at making names for themselves before they head to Scranton, even as Florida and Ohio State try for the chance to play each other in their second championship game in a major sport this year. Sure, Joakim Noah's hair and Greg Oden's 19-year-old-kid-in-a-42-year-old-man's-body routine can be entertaining, but I'd rather watch to see if Kei Igawa really is the Japanese David Wells. It's an odd comparison, since even if their pitching styles are similar, Igawa is so small that Wells drinks his weight in beer every day.

It's baseball for me. If I want to follow March Madness, I'll keep an eye on what Bush and his cronies are doing. On Saturday afternoon you will find me on my couch, watching the Bronx Bombers playing the Blue Jays and continuing to wonder why the Yanks are going to have three first basemen on the opening day roster. Maybe I'll flip through a William Blake poetry collection between innings. It would make Annie Savoy so proud.