Tuesday, May 20, 2008

SPORTS>> A reminder why it’s still the greatest game around

Leader sports editor

There is a reason the greatest authors and essayists have more often than not chosen baseball for their topic.

It is a game that lends itself to eloquence better than any of the other sports. Football is a slog through the mud; basketball a frenetic box of chaos. But baseball is graceful and expansive. Just gazing down on an empty diamond settles the mind.

From the crisp dignity of its uniforms to the fluidity of its unimpeded players moving about the field to its languid (literally) timeless pace, it is a game that quietly excites the heart. Football may awaken your inner beast, basketball might stir the blood into a froth.

But baseball – when played exquisitely and with just the right dash of drama – has a quality about it that almost has to speak for itself. (Poorly played, by the way, it can be a maddening thing to watch, very nearly an insult to the senses. Which is why, when people ask me my favorite sport to cover, I hesitate to say it is baseball. Yet, it is.)

It is a game that rewards attention to detail. It may be scoreless in the third inning, but did you notice that their pitcher is starting to work behind in the count? That he is starting to leave his curve ball up a little? Aren’t the batters starting to make better swings the second time through the lineup?

Perhaps that is why writers have struggled so mightily over the years to capture the soul bliss it can on rare occasion confer upon us.

Last Saturday evening was such an occasion. It was, first of all, an absolutely perfect evening weather-wise. And the panorama of Baum Field and the surrounding countryside hardly hurt matters any.

Then, too, there was this: Watching the field being dragged and smoothed, the crisp white perpendicular lines re-stamped, the plate, the batter’s box and pitching rubber brought back to pristine condition, the Sylvan Hills and Watson Chapel players playing long toss, the ball seeming to hang in the air forever, watching the clean, precise movements of the infielders fielding ground balls, the bullet throws across the diamond, hearing the pop of the mitt and the exhortations and praise of the coach, the anticipation of a state championship game, the near-certainty that it would be well-played and probably close as well.
In my six years of writing about sports, there are a few games that stand out, games I’m certain I’ll hold on to in memory forever. Who knows? Maybe as my life is flashing past at the end, a moment from one of those games will be among those final images. Hey, I’ll take that over a boring seascape or sunset.

I could probably go to my grave with a serene smile if among my last recollections is the sound and sight of Clint Thornton’s 3-run home run in the seventh inning on Saturday. As irritating as the ping of an aluminum bat may be, you’ve never heard such a clean, explosive pop. It was so clean that I don’t even recall the usual accompanying reverberations from the contact, just the gasp of the Sylvan Hills fans and the words of a parent behind me: “That baby is gone!”

Then, of course, the roar of the crowd as the Bears, looking all but dead, miraculously, just two outs away from extinction, turned a 4-1 deficit into a brand new ball game.

Was there any way the Bears would lose? I suppose it was possible. After all, as much as writers wax poetic about the game, this was still real life. Nothing was yet ordained and baseball can be as indiscriminate and cruel as any other sport. The Watson Chapel Wildcats will certainly attest to that.

When stunned Wildcat relief hurler Chance Cleveland gathered himself one batter later to record a strikeout, it sure looked as if the Bears would have to win it in extra innings if they were to prevail.

But Hunter Miller beat out an infield hit. Everyone knew the speedy Miller would be on his way to second shortly after he arrived at first. He made it without a throw as the ball got away from the catcher.

Then, with a 3-0 count, D.J. Baxendale got the green light and ripped the go-ahead single into right center. Nathan Eller pitched a three-up, three-down seventh and that was your old ball game – a 5-4 classic that brought Sylvan Hills its seventh state title.

The contest turned out to be an ideal example of one of baseball’s great gifts: The reward for patience. A game that began with goose eggs through the first three innings – no runs, no hits, no errors for either team – finished with nine runs and 15 hits.

Though there were two errors in the contest – both by Watson Chapel – there were, thankfully, no unearned runs, which is as it should be in such a game.

So, yes, the poetry that writers so often try to lend to the game of baseball can often trigger the gag reflex. The descriptions, the parallels, can often be contrived and hopelessly overwrought.

But baseball played at its highest level is a wonderful thing to behold. Saturday night, it provided its own poetry.