Jewish World Review April 23, 2002 / 12 Iyar, 5762

Paul Greenberg

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Life begins again: Heaven is opening day in the minors | Every baseball fan knows the world is divided into two parts. There's life, and there's the off-season.

Every baseball fan also knows the answer to that great scientific, philosophical and in recent years political question: When does life begin?

At Ray Winder Field in Little Rock, Ark., it began at 3 Sunday afternoon when the Arkansas Travelers took to the field against the Wichita (Kans.) Wranglers for the first home game of the season. When the Travs came trotting out in their briefly clean uniforms, life had begun again, and we saw it was good.

Yes, somewhere there was suffering, hate, stupidity, all that. In abundance. Somewhere homo sapiens was being anything but sapient. Somewhere young murderers so full of hatred were detonating themselves in hopes of taking as many innocent lives as possible with them. And old murderers were cheering them on. But you leave all that at the turnstile when you walk into this little beaut -- well, little rock -- of a ballpark. This way to the bleachers and mental health.

The beer is cold, the hot dogs hot, the peanuts salty, the families together, the lithe young women spring itself, and the taut young men a sight to behold on the field. The old timers are watchful and thoughtful in the shady seats along the first-base line, the careless young in the sun as raucous as ever. Within these friendly confines, all is well with the world.

The grass still looks a little patchy, but the signs on the fences gleam with fresh paint. Having grown up watching the old Shreveport (La.) Sports under the lights, daylight at a ballgame seems unnatural -- too wholesome. I feel like a vampire out beyond his bedtime. I miss the glint of the lights on the green green grass of the infield and the unnatural shadows they cast.

The sound of the crowd is still the same, unchanged by time and fortune. It is the sound, I dare imagine, only a baseball crowd makes. It is the sound of individuals, not the undifferentiated mass. Voices stand out, in catcalls or praise. Judgments are offered freely -- of the players, the umpires, the manager's decisions, the walk and balk and you name it. It is the sound of democracy at play.

I think it was Einstein who said the loveliest sound in the universe was background radiation. I think it's the murmur of a baseball crowd. Both come in waves.

Ray Winder Field here in Little Rock turns out to be the latest in design - Retro -- without ever having changed in any essential way. All it had to do was just stay the way it was, and fashion came to it. A lot of minor league parks are like that. Not having been swept away by fads, they are suddenly faddish.

Big league parks that try too hard for the same effect, like Camden Yards in Baltimore, turn out to be reproductions rather than reality. Probably because in some basic things, like baseball and agriculture and love, there is no substitute for time.

In the majors, that certain quality -- call it the nimbus of time -- is shared only by the landmarks somebody always wants to tear down, like Candlestick Park in San Francisco or Fenway in Boston. Wrigley Field has it, too.

The urban renewers we will always have with us, and they'll always say the new park will be just like the old one. Only you can't move the ghosts, you can't relocate history.

Some root for the home team, some for the visitors. Me, I always root for the team in the field. I've come to hate home runs; they make life on the base paths so much less interesting. The way a hurricane clears all life off the beach.

Today there is the usual full quota of beautiful plays in the infield -- I'm partial to third basemen in motion -- and impossible catches in the outfield. I've never seen an adagio as graceful as DiMaggio.

And yet it's what doesn't happen that fascinates most -- the chances missed, the calculations not followed through, as in a mind-cleansing game of chess.

As for the game itself, I think the Travs lost 4-2 to Wichita, a team whose black-and-gray visitors' uniforms could have been designed for a semi-pro team sponsored by a funeral home. It doesn't matter. Once again you've lost yourself in the slow, timeless clock of baseball. When the game has wound down, you're in no rush to leave. You hang around watching the crowd leave, and the little kids run around the bases. And think of the possibilities. Baseball is a game of endless possibilities, like summer itself. Like America.

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