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Life's a Pitch

You know those moments when all your senses open like a flower?
Picture this: West Palm Beach Municipal Stadium in mid-March, a tidy little ballpark, swept and green and balmy. Nolan Ryan is on the hill wearing that gruesome blaze of Astro orange and yellow across his chest, and he's zinging aspirins past the Expo hitters like they're little boys. That's Luis Pujols behind the plate, nodding happily at his tall, sweating pitcher and sometimes grinning. Because he's amazed. An hour from now, Luis will have his mitt hand in ice, swollen and ugly, but right now he's enjoying every split second.

Because The Express is unhittable today. Zip. Tim Raines goes down swinging, complete with an audible grunt. Pffft. Cromartie takes a called third strike on the corner, cemented in his cleats like a statue. In our close-up first-base seats, Henry scrawls another "K" in the book and scratches his head. "Unbelievable," he says. "The man is still the best." Out at shortstop, Craig Reynolds pounds his glove, chews his cud and tries to look interested. The Expos haven't managed a hard ground ball in three innings. So where are we having dinner tonight, Craig has to be thinking. Man, it's hot.

So what is this? 1982? '84? Somewhere in there. Has to be: That's Joe Niekro cantering along the outfield fence. And Nolan Ryan is throwing that scary heat, and the senses have opened up, and the dazed Montreal fans, pasty and pale after the long black winter in Trois Rivieres and Victoriaville and La Tuque, are sprawled under alien sunshine in their red, white and blue "Camp D'Entrainment" T-shirts, amazed that, yes, there is a sun. They're slurping from big cups of Molson and talking baseball in a bedroom language. Oui, Ryan est un beau lanceur. Best under the sun. Le soleil. Down here in belle Florida. At spring training, you can sit anywhere and watch an artist at work. Le grand Nolan Ryan.

Out in left, Terry Puhl gazes straight up into the burnt-blue sky as a lone white gull wheels by. Pujols sinks back into his squat now, and Ryan mops his brow with a sleeve, all business. But for a moment, between pitches, Puhl is a Little Leaguer again, staring into a cloudless heaven, full of dreams.

All right then. Dawson steps in. Zero for the afternoon until now, but if anyone can get to Ryan, it's probably the Hawk. Look at those wrists. Loose. The toes pointing in, the cocking of the left knee. And his Louisville Slugger, a black dangle of ash. Dawson is so relaxed up there, so muscle-ready and loose, that a little girl could knock the bat out of his hands in the instant before he coils, grips and rips. The Hawk is poetry.

Ryan winds. Henry sticks his pencil behind his ear, turns toward me, and before a syllable can get loose, it's suddenly on the way, magical, a little spinning blip blurred off the meat end of Dawson's bat, now hooking and darting straight at us and getting bigger. At that instant, all of baseball comes flooding in--the sprained ankle at nine, ballooned and blue-gray, and Tom Seaver, right hand nut-brown against his starched cuff, waving through the white storm of tickertape, and Jackie stealing second at Ebbets, and the sting of the brown deli mustard on the char-wrinkled frank, and gravely playing catch at dusk with Danny, both of us full of ice cream, and that time--much, much later, going full out to the scant, slick track, spikes skidding on the pebbles, and slamming chin-first into the chain link as the ball caroms crazily off the thumb of the big Wilson and skids away, and Johnson over there, grinning as he gambols after the rolling thing (a time bomb ticking) in that easy, big-muscled way of his, and him picking it up and sailing it in to third on a perfect, painterly, sun-drenched arc so beautiful it would break your heart if you saw it. Half a second late for the tag.

Now Henry has the ball.
In his big brown hand, Henry has the remains of the heater Ryan threw, that Dawson nicked, and he is beaming into the stitches of this instant holy relic. He holds the thing like a succulent orange, as if to take a bite out of it. Official Ball. National League. Hey. In the split second, Nolan gives Henry a glimpse, eye to eye, and the Hawk, too, decorating his with a flash of grin. Nice catch, rook. With the surprise object in our possession, tamed now, oddly still but for the seed of memory growing inside, more baseball floods through the mind. This, of course, is always a welcome intimacy, like a pal who drops by the house with a quart of Scotch under his arm, or the voice of an old love on the telephone.

It's--what? 1983? Johnny D., ex-fighter pilot, utility man, master of understatement, is buying rounds in a Phoenix jazz joint and gazing coolly at a blonde. No line, no stupid act, just profound appreciation. The cool gaze. When in walks Ron Swoboda, heftier and jowlier now, with lacquered sportscaster hair. For all time, Ron's a .242 hitter who is remembered for exactly one thing--his diving, ninth-inning grab of Brooks Robinson's liner in game four of the 1969 World Series, preserving the win for the Mets. Swoboda works his way to the mahogany, slipping in next to us, and orders a drink.

"Nice catch," Johnny D. says, fourteen years after the page-one pictures.
"Thanks," Swoboda murmurs and looks into his glass.
It is 1961, more or less. An early evening in summer. By challenge, the old men are playing the teenagers--fathers in paint-spotted work pants, baggy sweatshirts and brown sneakers, all weary from work, versus a pack of strutting, half-snotty kids wearing Legion baseball pinstripes. By the middle of the fourth inning, we boys have taken a 7-1 lead because our arms are stronger, our muscles leaner. Bill Lutz, a witty car dealer who once got a look from the Pirates, has baffled us with his splendid curve, but his infielders have let him down, and he's tiring. The fathers' bench rings with laughter, but the old men know how sore they're going to be next morning.

In the bottom of the fifth, my father comes to bat for the second time. In his day, he was a sprinter of note and an excellent semi-pro ballplayer, but he is now hobbled by the lingering effects of a near-fatal skull injury. Standing at shortstop, I pray no pitch goes anywhere near his head. On a 2-1 count he gets a heater down the heart, swings and lashes a line drive to short center. My heart leaps, but when he starts running to first, he's a man under water, legs milling and spinning and staying put. To my horror, our center-fielder has noticed and, after gloving the ball, is coiling to make a throw to first base for the put-out.

Dad, chugging hard, beats it by a step. The man who has always kept me safe is...safe.

Henry has the ball.
Nolan Ryan's day is done, and in the Astros dugout, his head is now a pile of cold towels; he's a monarch wrapped like a mummy. The spring afternoon is winding away (Astros 4, Expos 0, let's say), and on the practice fields beyond the outfield wall, you can see the minor-leaguers and rookies working out--sprint full out to that bag, field that ground ball, shag the fungo and hit the cutoff man. They are several working worlds distant from Ryan and Dawson and glory. The game is not ten seconds over when a silver-haired Montreal coach pops out of the dugout, three or four unhappy-looking young pitchers in tow, and starts putting them through bunt-coverage drills. Time to go. Take the details of the day, including the white blip that grew larger as it hooked right to us, and...go.

Good old Henry. As we climb the stairs to the exits, he spots a kid who has spotted the ball in his hand. The boy is big eyes and silence. Without hesitation, Henry flips the thing to him and, in a gesture I can still see, brushes his hands together as if to say: Goodbye. See you.

"It's okay," Henry says. "I'll remember."
You know those moments when all your senses open like a flower? Sure you do. There's no use fighting the tug of baseball, the seed of memory that takes you back to Nolan Ryan's unhittable darts or your wounded father's brave odyssey to first. For some reason, I just keep thinking of this: Freedom is the prison of rebellion.

Way to go, Biff.
Broncos quarterback John Elway not only won the Super Bowl, he also ponied up the extra shot of horsepower Dale Earnhardt needed to win his first Daytona 500.

Anyway, that's what the Man in Black says. Through the long week of practice and quali-fying in Florida, the nineteen-time starter at NASCAR's most prestigious event--its Super Bowl--said he took inspiration from Elway's persistence in the Big One to finally get the checkered flag on Sunday. Something about the look in Elway's eyes before facing Green Bay in San Diego.

If anything, Earnhardt's Daytona frustrations had been even worse than Elway's on cham-pionship day. One year his pit crew forgot to replace a lug nut and he wobbled home. A cut tire cost him another 500, a late pass by Dale Jarrett a third, and in his most bizarre finish, a seagull clogged his radiator while he was leading the last lap, and he finished third.

Earnhardt won Daytona on his twentieth try. For one of the greatest drivers in NASCAR history, it was his first win in sixty starts.

There is one difference between Earnhardt and Elway, however: No. 3 gets another shot at Daytona next year; No. 7 gets no guarantees.