Safe at Home

Baseball's sunshine still peeks out among the clouds.

Bobby DeGeorge saw his first Opening Day in 1954, at the age of nine, when his father took him and his brother to New York's fabled Polo Grounds to watch the Giants play Pittsburgh. DeGeorge doesn't remember who won. He doesn't remember what his hero, Willie Mays, just back from a two-year stint in the Army, did at the plate. It doesn't much matter.

What does matter -- what he vividly remembers -- is the pure surge of emotion he felt that day at the ballpark. The well-dressed fans in their dresses and suits ("Men wore hats in those days, formal businessman hats"), the scent of sloppy hot dogs, the sleek, glamorous Giants down on the field in their sparkling white flannels, running across a sun-dappled expanse of perfectly manicured green grass that provided startling contrast to the hard, relentless gray of the city -- all of this conspired to fill young Bobby with an unnamable excitement.

"It wasn't until later, after many more Opening Days, that I understood it," he says. "It was, you know, 'all of the above.' All the beautiful cliches that people like to laugh at now: the ancipation of spring, the renewal of hope, the sense that all good things were possible. I half expected Willie Mays to sprout wings. For little kids, especially, the game is magic, and Opening Day is the first trick in the magic show."

Mark Andresen

In the age of irony and detachment, Bobby DeGeorge's reflection on a sunny day at the Polo Grounds almost half a century ago is not likely to stir much fellow-feeling. In the past decade or so, the beat writers in the press box -- and a lot of fans, too -- have adopted a hard-boiled view of baseball, a sour stance more self-conscious than authentically world-weary. The old prose poets and purists can't shine them on -- not a bit. They know Barry Bonds is a jerk, Steinbrenner's a Nazi and most of the third basemen in both leagues should be waiting on tables or driving the team bus. The game isn't what it used to be, and it never will be again. Probably never was.

Well, how does it feel this Opening Day?

Here's one answer. War and death (and the prospect of more bloodshed) have a way of driving people back to first principles. And there's no sport with more sheer principle at its heart than baseball. After all, the mathematical perfection in Mr. Cartwight's old game -- three outs per inning, sixty feet, six inches from rubber to dish, ninety feet between bases, and all the rest -- have always led, whether we like it or not, to a kind of moral absolutism. The game's cherished statistics don't lie. A .345 batting average, 41 home runs and 100 RBI -- Willie Mays's numbers back in 1954 -- remain brilliant today, and that truth brings baseball fans to the kind of moral clarity the current administration would like us to have about the far more dangerous game being played in the streets of Baghdad. But what do you believe in this April? The rituals of baseball or the rituals of war?

Pressed, then pressed again, Bobby DeGeorge also has something to say about this. "Strange -- I thought about it. I thought about baseball all the time," he says. "It was a defense mechanism."

This is to say (my old friend Bobby is saying) that when his infantry platoon was under heavy fire in the jungle in the spring of 1968 -- and they were under fire a lot -- he sometimes thought about the game he loved, the game he'd played his whole life, all the way up to minor-league ball in the Sally League. The game whose principles were clear and whose rules never changed. "That's another thing I didn't understand until later," he says. "The way thinking about the game provided comfort. I thought about my family and, of course, Dana [his wife-to-be]. And about home. But I thought about baseball more often than you'd guess. I'm still surprised by that. I suppose, underneath everything, there was the ultimate equilibrium of baseball. The notion of the fairness of it. That was the comfort. The same comfort you get from it when you're a kid."

And today? Does baseball still provide the old emotion?

"I don't know," Bobby answers. "I'm not sure. My own grown kids never cared much about the game, so it probably hasn't stayed with me, or inside me, as strongly as it might have. But let me tell you a story. You remember when we were at school? Maybe 1965 or 1966. I don't know, might have been junior year. And we were, what -- a couple of screwups who didn't go to class much and didn't give a damn. Too busy getting high and trying to write stories and arguing at three o'clock in the morning. Anyway, we went down to Wrigley Field for Opening Day, remember? Third inning or so, Ernie Banks comes up and gets a high heater, and he hits this tremendous shot way out onto Waveland. Remember that? Four zip. And all the fans around us in Wrigley start talking about Banks and Billy Williams and how this is the year the Cubs are finally going back to the World Series, how everything is going to be different, the whole world is going to change because Ernie Banks hits a home run in the third inning of the new season.

"You could have canned the sunshine on their faces. Now, that was hope. That was belief. Unjustified, sure. But what hope. The hope that everything would be fine. The whole world would regain its balance, and justice would finally be done. Well, I never told you, never told Dana, either, or anybody. But in Vietnam, I thought about that Opening Day at Wrigley, too, about the way Banks's homer lifted everyone in the place up onto a cloud, and sometimes it would get confused with the acres of green grass at the Polo Grounds and my father and that first Opening Day way back in New York. Let me tell you, I remember -- and this is very specific, very clear -- I remember thinking about Ernie Banks when we were in one godawful shitstorm of a firefight and guys were going down all over the place. Ernie Banks! Man, it's funny how the mind works. So. Jesus. I guess it is still in there, all that feeling for the past and for the game. It's really strange how baseball can kind of bind everything together."


Of course, there are always louder, more belligerent sports on the planet. Consider demolition derbies. Or pro wrestling. Or this: the National Intercollegiate Shotgun Championships, which were contested last week at the National Gun Club in San Antonio, Texas.

Now, when most college students think "shots," they're standing at the brass rail trying to flag down a bartender. When the National Rifle Association and something called the Association of College Unions International -- the event's sponsors -- say the word, they mean skeet and trap and marksmanship and smoke and noise. The folks at the NRA, bless their high-caliber hearts, have been naming All-American shooters since 1936, and this is the 35th year that college shooting teams from across the nation (including, this time, Colorado State and the Air Force Academy) have tested themselves in the annual clay-bird events. No word from the organizers about whose faces pranksters may have painted on the targets in San Antone, but you couldn't go wrong guessing Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, Jacques Chirac and Michael Moore.

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