Jewish World Review Nov. 12, 2001 / 26 Mar-Cheshvan, 5762

Paul Greenberg

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Consumer Reports

Confessions of a fan -- Dear Russian immigrant,

It is wholly a pleasure to answer your inquiry.

Yes, I did watch the World Series -- every game -- and, no, I'm not sure I can explain the fascination of baseball to someone who didn't grow up with it. It has been said that, for the baseball fan, the whole of existence is divided into two parts: life and the off-season.

But for a week every year, the whole country remembers that we still have a national pastime. (You should know that the last two words of the national anthem are "play ball.'')

How can you learn to appreciate baseball? Not easily. I imagine it would be like someone who didn't grow up in the British Empire trying to appreciate cricket by studying those indecipherable rules. Sticky wicket and all that.

I'm also not sure becoming a baseball fan would be worth the pain. As an anybody-but-the-damn-Yankees fan, my anguish this year was as exquisite as my reward.

Dante clearly underestimated the number of circles in Hell, for he omitted the extra-inning anguish of rooting for some outfit out of Phoenix, Ariz., against the invincible New York Yankees. My idea of Hell is spending eternity watching hitters in pinstripes round the bases.

To add to the fun, the Damn Yankees regularly wait till the bottom of the ninth with two out and two strikes on the batter to wake up and start playing like their unbeatable selves. Sometimes it seems like rooting against Fate, like going to every showing of the same movie hoping the ending will change.

At one point I was reduced to wondering if anybody knew Lola's phone number -- as in Lola the devil's temptress in the musical "Damn Yankees.'' I identified with the poor, doomed hero, a Washington Senators fan circa 1948. There were times when I was ready to sell my soul for a third strike that never came.

I kept having this recurrent nightmare: I am walking through broad sunlit uplands, stopping to admire the vista and smell the flowers in a grassy mountain meadow under a cloudless sky, when I meet this nice little Korean kid in a pitcher's uniform who leads me into a dark, dank cave where nine burly men in pinstripes, armed with baseball bats, proceed to beat me to a bloody pulp.

Then I wake up and realize it's no dream. It's the World Series. At least Games 4 and 5.

The anybody-but-the-Yankees fan faces a lifetime of being knocked out of the park, sent to the showers, and being told it's all over but the shoutin' by the dreaded clichi squad. Is there no escape?

But a World Series isn't over till it's over. I haven't had that dream since the end of Game 7.

This Series had to have had some of the most intense, armchair-gripping ninth innings in Series history.

To quote Joaquin Andujar, late of the St. Louis Cardinals: "You can sum up baseball in one word: You never know.'' Sr. Andujar may have had his failings as a pitcher, his English was less than perfect, and his ability to count may be doubted, but when it comes to summing up baseball, like Yogi Berra, he had the soul of a poet.

Baseball is a game of the mind as much as the body, though you wouldn't know it from the way some of the Phoenix infielders played it last week.

It is a very sl-o-o-w and very bo-o-ring game unless you use the time between plays, and sometimes during, to consider the possibilities. As in chess, some of the most interesting things in the game never happen.

Then there is the sheer physical grace of the game -- its pastoral pace, the agility of its players, especially in the field, under the lights, at the most unexpected moments. Think of the double play as the American equivalent of a pas de trios. Think of baseball as what the Bolshoi might have been if it had been able to retain the services of Barishnikov and Balanchine.

Those last names have much the same effect on a balletomane as the single, magical word DiMaggio on some of us. We see him forever loping across center to make the impossible catch seem, yes, slow and boring. Or he may be fixed forever in our mind at the end of that perfect, wide-stanced swing, as if Botticelli had painted him.

An Italian exchange student once asked me what he should study to understand America. I began my list with jazz and baseball, then added the Civil War and the Constitution. Jazz he already appreciated. The psychic dimensions of The War he could still sense at Vicksburg's military park. And the U.S. Constitution he admired, even worshipped. (He would go on to become a lawyer in Florence with an avid interest in the Anglo-American legal tradition, so different from his own.) But baseball eluded him.

The Constitution and the national pastime, I tried to explain, share a finely calibrated balance and, when it is lost, the result is carnage. (See the Civil War, which was tragic, and the sixth, 15-to-2 game of this year's Series, which was comical.)

But despite my hectoring, and even a few visits to the nearest ballpark, my young friend never got to first base. He had been exposed to the game too late, after his mind had been shaped by soccer instead. It's like learning a foreign language. Unless certain connections are made early in life, it's almost impossible to sound like a native speaker, da?

Suffice it to say, the game mystifies those new to it while it reduces every true fan to bad poetry and metaphors strained beyond breaking. As I have just demonstrated.

Already missing baseball, Inky Wretch

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