Glove Child

Mack Marsh is one good-looking prospect. He's a big kid with good hands, decent speed and plenty of power. He rarely loses his concentration up there at the plate. He plays with lots of desire and only occasionally swings at pitches three feet over his head. A real gamer. If you were to try to distract him in the middle of an at-bat--by, say, waving a big bowl of cookies-and-cream ice cream under his nose--he'd pay you no mind. This is a guy who wants with all his heart to rip line drives, and he's not susceptible to outside influences. Matter of fact, he won't even talk between innings. To anyone. He's too busy contemplating the flight of the next pitch he'll see or the twisting angle of the pop fly that might come his way two innings from now--this despite the fact that eight or nine of his teammates will also be in the vicinity of the same pop fly. This is baseball. Serious business. Mack Marsh has his game face on.

So what if he's seven years old.
If you want to see the future of the American pastime, don't bother visiting Asheville or Salem or Colorado Springs, where all those minor-leaguers drift hopefully on frail dreams of giving the Colorado Rockies some authentic starting pitching some day or of joining the next generation of Blake Street Bombers. Don't scout the tryout camps or peer into the team bus parked on the back road from Harrisburg to Binghamton. Don't even search Omaha, where they manage to take a little break from football worship each spring to play the College World Series.

If you want to see the future of baseball, watch first-graders play it. You'll discover no purer feeling this side of mother love. In the micro-leagues, light-hitting shortstops don't demand salary arbitration, and the only endorsement contracts are the emotional ones binding parents to their children. Keep watching. Occasionally, you'll see someone catch a ground ball, and you're sure to spot a wet dog or two in the outfield. Here's the soul of the game, with its cap on crooked.

Mack Marsh, No. 4, plays for the Hornets, in Steamboat Springs. He's a second-year man, and if you have to put a name on it, I guess you'd call him a utility infielder. Actually, everyone on the team is a utility infielder. That's because, when they're not batting, all fourteen or fifteen Hornets are spread in untidy clumps between second and third base along with two or three parent-coaches offering up assorted playing tips. Out there, too, you'll find the occasional younger brother or sister and whatever house pets have bought tickets for today's game.

At first glance, this formidable defensive array looks to be impenetrable. You can't help thinking Larry Walker himself would have trouble hitting a line drive through six shortstops--no matter how short they are. But first impressions can be deceiving. In the course of last week's contest between the Hornets and the Twins--pitched, very gently, by gentle-tempered coaches--the team's massed armies of tiny infielders generally showed aversion to any baseball looping or bouncing in their direction. This is not to say your average Hornet is afraid of the ball--our stout-hearted Mack certainly isn't; he even caught a pop-up--but sometimes a baseball is an object best contemplated at, well, a distance. If you've never watched a four-mile-an-hour grounder roll virtually untouched through a phalanx of eleven little ballplayers, you haven't seen Mr. Cartwright's grand old game in full flower. In that sight lurks a philosophical construct, really, and a reminder of just how difficult the game is.

Mack Marsh and his teammates have probably never heard of Bill Buckner, who made the most famous fielding error in World Series history, but he probably should be commissioner of the micro-league. The fabled grounder that Mookie Wilson hit between Buckner's legs in game six of the 1986 Series wasn't moving much faster than the one with which a tiny Hornet batter named Miriam, sporting ruffled pink socks and a dreamy look, scattered the entire Twins roster last week.

In the end, no one seemed to know if the Hornets had won 38-36 (just a rough estimate here) or if they had lost 40-37. Happily, no one cared. When the game was over, all the players simply trotted off the field, hats askew and T-shirts drooping to their ankles, and at the behest of a slightly overheated team manager, dove into a huge box of doughnuts. This is as it should be. You play ball, you eat doughnuts and then you go home. If you get lucky, you dream about growing up to be Ken Griffey Jr. You don't care what the score is. Our friend Mack loves the game, but he doesn't care about the score, either.

On a pair of adjacent diamonds, some older students of the art--Little Leaguers with real uniforms and the first hints of real adolescent skin--were playing baseball of a slightly different kind. For one thing, the fielders were traditionally arrayed, one per position around the diamond. (I don't know about you, but the very sight of this beautiful symmetry still brings me close to tears.) For another, most of the players could throw the ball more than eleven feet, and there were a couple of big, hulking fourteen-year-olds out there you wouldn't want to insult down at the video arcade. There was something else, too. While learning something about the game--you could spot the future high-school stars in two seconds--these Little Leaguers had also started to pick up its dominant gestures and poses--undoubtedly from watching baseball on television. For instance, a couple of the kids had incorporated into their own emerging body language that impassive gaze into the dirt major-leaguers favor, especially when simultaneously waving a fork of forefinger and pinky at their teammates to signal two down.

The gangly young pitchers had expropriated assorted rock-and-fire moves from Randy Johnson and Roger Clemens, and you could swear that was a pint-sized Dante Bichette out there, waggling the bat high and loose in the batter's box, one finger drumming diagonally on the bat handle. I tell you, these kids had even learned to spit major-league--with the cool defiance that speaks of a .300 batting average and a $2 million salary.

In vivid contrast to the younger kids, who grinned and daydreamed and stared into the sky and then swung their little aluminum bats like their lives depended on it, the older boys (as well as a couple of girls) had begun to lose their innocence. Along with skill, they were developing attitude, and you couldn't help having mixed emotions about it. Baseball is a game for children, no matter how old the players are; sometimes it's best to keep grownup things out of it altogether.

"Nice game, No. 4," I said to Mack when he came off the field.
"Thanks," he said, and stared into his glove.
On the way home from the ballpark, I thought: The chance that this little guy will play for the Mets or the Angels or the Rockies twenty years from now is infinitesimal. But you can bet that a kid very much like him will go in his place. A boy full of heart and soul and game-day gravity, a boy whose eyes are lit with desire. Then I thought again of the thirteen-year-olds aping big-league moves they've seen on TV. Mack is not my child, but I took secret, selfish glee in the fact that he is still only seven, still standing in a clump of teammates at second base, still indifferent to ball scores. Stick around for another doughnut, I thought. Don't go just yet.

That episode of Monday Night Futbol set in Mexico City had a little bit of everything, didn't it?

Intent on cross-cultural understanding, the show's director couldn't keep his cameras off the fans wearing the sombreros and the glitter suits. Haven't you heard? Mexico is one continuous mariachi party.

Mr. Touchdown U.S.A., Frank Gifford, was so quiet in the broadcasting booth during this season opener that you might have suspected he had other matters on his mind--or something going back at the hotel.

Oh, and John Elway joined Tory James and Jumpy Geathers on the walking-wounded list. At the age of 37, a frayed tendon and a torn bicep in your throwing arm is serious business, to say the least: Zillion-dollar starting pitchers and can't-miss point guards have retired with lesser injuries. While Biff, as tough a guy as has ever put on shoulder pads, promptly shrugged the whole thing off, all of Denver is praying he doesn't come out of his latest MRI with his illustrious career hanging by a gory thread. Without Elway's muscle--physical and mental--your Broncos can write off those Super Bowl dreams. Again.

Early reports said doctors might need a length of transplanted tendon to put the star quarterback back together. Maybe they can borrow it from Pat Bowlen's tongue.


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