THE SPORTING LIFE.

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KEN BURNS BE DAMNED -- HERE'S THE REAL SCOOP BEHIND OUR COUNTRY'S LOVE AFFAIR WITH THE GAME
[posted 06.07.2002]

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OK, BASEBALL. YEAH, I guess I could wax rhapsodical about America’s favorite pastime, how no other sport has so completely captured the collective imagination and is responsible for assimilating generations of immigrants. Blah, blah, blah. But lookit, Ken Burns covered all that territory ad nauseum in his interminable documentary that left even this rabid fan cringing at yet another bluegrass rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” No, I don’t give a damn about all that. I love baseball. And baseball is personal.

Baseball is sexy. There is a reason why as teenagers we talk about how far we let a guy get in baseball terms — first base, a kiss; second, above the waist… Baseball gives us a familiar and comfortable shorthand, it becomes part of our venacular. I lost my virginity in my high school boyfriend’s rec room — the few times I opened my eyes during that incredibly long and disappointingly short 10 minutes, I gazed upon a poster of Pete Rose performing his trademark slide into first base. OK, Rose fixed games and had a gambling jones, but I want him in the Hall of Fame to commemorate busting my cherry. I still find baseball an aphrodisiac: It’s the fifth inning, my pitcher is getting shelled, my lover sidles up to me on the couch, slides his hand under my T-shirt; there’s the drone of the announcers, the white noise of the crowd punctuated by the sound of a bat making contact with a ball. I lose myself in the play, and by the time the relief pitcher makes his entrance in the seventh, I’m in heaven. Post-coital cuddling is best when your team comes from behind in the eighth. Or not.

Baseball is religious. Some may call it superstition; none can deny its power. Take the Chicago Cubs, a club that can’t buy a Series win. In 1969, they were first in their division for 155 days. Then a black cat scampered in front of their dugout during a game against the Mets — then the second-place team. The Cubbies’ fate was sealed; they ended up eight behind the Amazin’s and didn’t make it to the Big Show for yet another year. Or consider the Curse of the Bambino, which has kept the Red Sox from winning a World Series since 1918. Who can doubt that the Babe didn’t have a hand in Mookie Wilson’s routine grounder dribbling through the legs of Bill Buckner in 1986? These are just two of myriad examples which prove that religion, albeit pagan religion, is a factor in baseball. I believe that my Mets will never win a World Series until they get rid of Bobby V, and it has nothing to do with Bobby’s coaching. Valentine is married to Mary Branca; he is the son-in-law of the infamous Ralph Branca who gave up The Shot Heard ‘Round the World: Bobby Thomson’s pennant-winning home run in 1951. As far as I’m concerned, their union portends failure — we won’t win a thing if our coach is sleeping next to Branca’s daughter every night. So Bobby has to go.

Baseball is sensuous. There is nothing more beautiful than the sight you behold as you emerge from the belly of a stadium out into the glorious sunshine, the green green of the field unfolding in front of you. All is primary colors, from the grass to the seats to the brilliant yellow mustard striping your hot dog. Basking in the sun, joining in the rhythmic chants, root root rooting in the middle of the seventh inning — every fiber of your being is alive. And a summer night game: The sweet breeze from left field, the lights shining on the play, right where you want them, you in the stands in a twilight of pleasure. The summer sound of vendors hawking beers and of peanut shells crunching under your feet tells you that you’re home.

Baseball is comforting. The week of 9/11, baseball was cancelled. I had been working four blocks from the Towers. The day I went back in to my office was the same day that play was to resume. Downtown had been transformed into a war zone, pimply faced guardsmen and women lined Wall Street holding semiautomatics, looking like they wanted to be anywhere but there. The singed air stung my nostrils, a gray soot covered every surface, color-xeroxed photos of the missing were taped on storefronts, lamp posts, mailboxes… It was surreal and frightening. Where the hell am I? Amid all the madness, I needed something to make sense. After eight exhausting hours, I was home. I made dinner and turned on the radio to listen to the game — no CNN tonight. I listened as Gary Thorne and Bob Murphy spoke in a language that I could finally understand: back-to-back singles; flying out; a 6-4-3 double play; a pitch low and away; there’s the 1-1; the bases are loaded; keeping the hitters honest; a chance to help his own cause…

I love the game. Like I said, baseball is personal. And, thankfully, this weekend the Mets are at home.

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cathy vail ives and works in new york city.