Saturday, April 28, 2007

Spring, Baseball and Time

A beautiful afternoon in Arlington, Massachusetts, about 60 degrees and sunny in that crisp, early-spring way.

I’m still working through a nice head cold, so after shaking off about 12 hours of sleep, a real rarity for me, I headed to the lovely public library down the street, a venerable, handsome old thing with a vaulted reading room and a good collection, built back when men were men and women were mothers. It’d been many months since I took one of my patented two-hour idylls there. I browsed the fiction section, and then lounged in a stuffed chair flipping through the candidates I’d pulled for easy, head-cold reading. I ended up with one of the few Michael Chabon books I haven’t read yet, a children’s work called Summerland. I know I’ve chosen well when I feel anticipation stealing over me, inspired by the extra weight in my backpack as I walk out of the library.

I decided to cut behind Mass Ave, down through the baseball fields and across to Spy Pond, to enjoy a bit of sunshine and finish my current book. But as I emerged from the small woods behind home plate, I spotted the brilliant blue of a baseball uniform, and then a few more. About six boys, roughly 13 years old, all assuming an age-old studied, casual pose. Their backs were to me, and they were leaning their crossed arms on a metal cross-rod in the frame of the mesh backstop; each also had one foot up on the lower cross-rod, their hips at an identical easy cant; chatting, watching the opposite team take fielding practice, their coach neatly laying down grounders to every infield position. As one knows these things, I knew fortune had smiled upon me, and I’d been waylaid from my reading mission to watch a couple of innings of proper American little league baseball.

The Cubs, the brilliant blue team, took the field for the between-inning warm-up ritual, the first baseman lazily tossing grounders to second, short, third; second, short, third; those fielders loosely snagging the ball at the last second in the topmost part of the webbing of their glove and then easily snapping the ball back to the first baseman, who dutifully looked behind him after each catch and touched a cleat to the base, to snuff out the life of the imaginary runner. Outfielders tossed each other longer throws across the bright, spring-green grass. A tall, lean pitcher hurled white lightning past invisible, flummoxed batters. Every lanky boy a beautiful embodiment of effortless power; not trying wanting to look as if they were trying too hard – yet trying just hard enough to possibly sting the knuckles of the boy on the other end of each throw.

It was fine to sit in the sun and watch the first couple of innings unfurl in their slow, inexorable way, like the pace of large sailing ship with 18 or 20 brilliantly uniformed mates as it edges across a glassy bay on a lazy, windless day. There were no egregious little league errors. There were no coaches or fathers screaming obscenities. No one heaped abuse upon the oversized, underpaid umpire as he went about his jurisprudence. There was just a bunch of boys enjoying trying to beat each other at an old, old game.

The game seemed, in that timeless stretch of April afternoon, much older than the insultingly factual historian’s estimate of roughly 170 years. Perhaps baseball was derived, as scholars would have it, from a centuries older British game. Perhaps we can, as they tell us, pin down the exact date the first organized game was played under its modern American nomenclature. But none of that musty history was in the air this afternoon at 2:45 at the Spy Pond playing field (where the arch over the concrete bleachers, as old as the nearby public library, bears the legend, “Fair Play”). What I saw reflected there, in every ritual and gesture, was, in fact, older than time itself, and yet fresher than the short, sharp shadows on the infield dirt. These boys were moving in the same rhythms that my father moved in when he was their age. And, because my father playing baseball is something that happened before I was born – and thus before history began – that means that this game was, in fact, invented and played in the fields of Aasgard. Yet, paradoxically, the vision of those ancestral fields will be sparked alive again in every little leaguer I ever see, until the day I leave this earthly veil – and thus, beyond recorded time.

Baseball is beyond time. It’s right now – it’s spring in Arlington, Massachusetts.

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