On baseball, baseball books, and baseball misery

baseball

The Houston Astros Baseball Club is a cruel mistress.

Every summer, for over fifty summers now, I’ve been teased, baited with promises, and had my expectations lifted.  And every autumn my heart’s been broken.

Yet I let it happen again year after year.

Now that the World Series, a particularly exciting and definitely historic one, is over and another season of the national pastime is in the books I’m already missing checking the box scores every morning in the paper, clicking over to check in on a game on television or listening to one on the car radio, and even driving up to Houston occasionally to shell out copious cash to park and eat a hotdog at Minute Maid Park.

One reason that baseball, as American as any undertaking I can think of, is so mesmerizing to so many is that it’s full of Moments – pure, sweet individual pieces of time – that are etched into the minds and hearts of its devotees.  Babe Ruth pointing to the nosebleed section to plot the path for his next homer. Hank Aarron breaking the Babe’s homerun record.  Critically ill Lou Gehrig’s immortal “I’m the luckiest man on the face of the earth” farewell speech.  And perhaps the finest Moment of all, transpiring in a dozen and more stadiums on any given day during the long season, when thousands upon thousands of fans come to their feet during the seventh inning stretch and belt out “Take Me Out to the Ball Game”, the hearty delivery becoming the strong heartbeat of an institution that has marched admirably on for an awfully long time.

It’s even bled nicely over into our literature.

Being an avid reader, my natural attraction to things written about baseball goes back to my introduction to “Casey at the Bat” in elementary school. Since then I’ve enjoyed Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer, Frank Deford’s The Old Ball Game, legendary sportswriter Red Smith’s To Absent Friends, my friend Talmage Boston’s 1939: Baseball’s Tipping Point, columnist and baseball fanatic Roger Angell’s The Summer Game and Season Ticket, and political journalist George Will’s Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball. In the fiction department I recommend The Natural by Bernard Malamud, Michael Sharra’s For the Love of the Game, and my favorite, If I Never Get Back by Darryl Brock, a time travel yarn in which a modern day fellow suddenly finds himself in 1869 traveling with the Cincinnati Red Stockings, the first professional baseball team.

Suffice it to say, I’m a longstanding fan of baseball, in spite of the fact that my team of choice has consistently come up short of the big prize. And I count it a blessing that so many gifted wordsmiths have written books that amplify my passion.  The origin of which I can easily pinpoint.

In early October of 1999 I wrote a piece for “Texas”, the Houston Chronicle’s Sunday magazine back then, to commemorate the Astros’ last game in the Astrodome.  It was titled “More than Score and Dome Dogs” and it recounted some of my memories of attending hundreds of ball games there.

At the end of that article I wrote about my first visit to the Dome over three decades before that ignited my love of the game.

That night I saw my first home run hit there. A Houston player named Chuck Harrison slammed one out and my friends and our fathers came to our feet.  I almost dropped my hot dog.

The entire curved side of the building erupted into dazzling lights and smoke.  What had been dark dots on a dark wall became a cowboy on horseback roping a calf. Whistles blew. Horns honked. Things popped. Even the two giant Gulf signs on either end of the scoreboard seemed brighter than they could possibly be.  I wondered if they too would explode.

And in the middle of all of it, during all the hoopla and the noise and the cheering, my father looked down at me and squeezed my neck with his fingers. This man who had been born just a few years after the Wright Brothers took to the air, who had survived the Depression and had been to war whispered something into my ear. A secret.

“You may never see anything like this again,” he told me.

He’s long gone now.  And as so often has proved to be the case, he was right.

The Astros will report to spring training in Florida next February.  And my tender heart will give itself over to another season of hope springing eternal.

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