Baseball's Treasured Orb

Keep your eye on the ball.

When I was a kid, my father had a friend named Morris Kleinman, an elegant, witty lawyer with a passion for tailor-made suits, Bombay martinis on the stem and the New York Yankees. Renowned as a tiger in the courtroom, Mr. Kleinman was an indulgent and generous man outside the legal arena -- especially when it came to children. His social radar was always turned up. If he saw one needy look in a sidewalk cluster of eight-year-olds, he would pile all of us into the plush leather of his big Chrysler Imperial, glide over to Catanzeriti's, and there stand the whole shouting mob to black-and-white ice-cream sodas and fat packs of baseball cards magically dusted with bubble-gum powder. It was on one of these sunlit occasions that, having no grasp of the future and no inkling of investment value, I traded an early Mickey Mantle for a Junior Gilliam. Go Bums!

Mr. Kleinman's son, Ira, a good third baseman who tended to step in the bucket, was always in the candy-store group and was always a friend. As shy as his father was flamboyant, Ira Kleinman played hard and said little. Everyone liked him. When he died of leukemia at the age of twelve, we kids were scared. And baffled. And struck by disbelief. For weeks afterward, we expected Ira to materialize on the corner with his crooked grin, tossing a ball into the pocket of his mitt: "Let's play," he would say, and we would then go to our scarred diamond under the long east ramp of the Triborough Bridge and, with traffic thrumming overhead, play until dark.

Instead, one day sometime later, I went with my father to Mr. Kleinman's office in Ozone Park. That visit remains as vivid as the day JFK was shot, or the night my father suddenly died, or September 11th. On Mr. Kleinman's rich cherry-wood walls hung an impressive array of framed degrees (Cornell, Columbia) scripted in Latin, a dozen civic awards and some casual pictures: Mr. Kleinman with Adam Clayton Powell; Mr. Kleinman with Moose Skowron, the Yankees first baseman; Mr. Kleinman with my father and Jack Dempsey, each handsomely suited man smiling and holding a highball. On Mr. Kleinman's desk there was a photograph of Mrs. Kleinman, a spectacularly beautiful woman in the style of Jane Russell -- and a silver-framed photograph of Ira Kleinman, age eight or nine, sitting alone and looking dreamy in his baseball cap.

In Mr. Kleinman's palm, turning and turning, I saw a bright white, red-laced baseball.

"Doc," he said, rising to greet my father. "Nice to see you." He extended his impeccably tailored arms, and the two friends briefly embraced. "And young Bill! How are you, slugger?" The baseball kept turning in Mr. Kleinman's hand, and when he came to hug me, I sniffed the dangerous odor of gin. For a while the men talked (uncomfortably, I thought), and when at last my father and I got up to leave, I saw the flash of so stricken a look pass over Mr. Kleinman's face that I have never forgotten it. His hand, the one holding the baseball, lingered on my shoulder, and even now I can smell the gin.

This is a roundabout way, I suppose, of reminding myself -- and maybe you, too -- that the outside of a horsehide (to corrupt Winston Churchill) can do wonders for the inside of a man. I don't know how many days or months or years Mr. Kleinman sought to comfort himself with the ancient textures of a baseball cupped in his hand -- the rippled sheen of the hide, the 216 laces, the familiar five-ounce heft -- nor can I presume to measure the depth of his grief. But I do understand the secret pleasures of flipping a baseball hand to hand, of roughing up the surface between the palms like Nolan Ryan in stern concentration. Anyone who once played the game at any level and continues to love it understands the pleasures of the baseball itself -- yes, they verge into the sensual -- of absentmindedly soft-tossing the thing into the air and performing assorted bare-handed catches, plain and fancy, in a reverie that can suddenly uncloud muddled thought. Any player of old grasps the way playing mindless flip-and-catch with an office colleague can bring new focus to jangled senses. A baseball is not just a talisman. It's an object of contemplation that, by the simple act of handling it, can produce something like a religious experience. Ask anyone who keeps a Rawlings or a Spalding on his desk. Mr. Kleinman knew what he was doing.

These things come to mind today because, amid the fascinating and unpredictable World Series just now completed, the baseball itself came under special scrutiny. Furthermore, just beyond the home parks of the Anaheim Angels and the San Francisco Giants, some baseballs that have much greater totemic value than that smudged and beaten old favorite on your coffee table remain disputed objects of desire.

By the time this Hotel California Series got to Game 2, an 11-10 slugfest featuring five home runs, some players on both teams -- pitchers, mostly -- started speculating that the baseballs being used in the games were wound tighter than Bud Selig's psyche. In the Official Baseball Rules, section 1.09 states that "the ball should be a sphere formed by yarn wound around a small sphere of cork, rubber, or similar material covered with two strips of white horsehide or cowhide, tightly stitched together." Today's ball has a cork nucleus encased in rubber, wound with 121 yards of blue-gray yarn, 45 yards of white wool yarn and 150 yards of fine cotton yarn, covered in hand-stitched cowhide.

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