Forget the calendar. I'll tell you when spring arrived in these parts: precisely at 7:15 p.m. April 3, 2008, when Fernando Rodriguez threw the first pitch of the Arkansas Travelers' season at Dickey-Stephens Stadium in North Little Rock, Ark. It was a ball.
Let a John Updike write rapturously about that "lyric little bandbox of a ball park" up in Boston called Fenway in one of his star turns ("Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu") for The New Yorker circa 1960. But this perfect little retro park alongside the Arkansas River has a still new charm of its own.
Still unhallowed by time, unscarred by much history, waiting to grow on us, this little jewel of a Texas League ballpark is like any other one-year-old, absorbing all the love and adulation grateful fans can offer. It has the one thing none of the storied old major-league parks can offer: It's ours.
For as Chesterton once wrote of an otherwise unprepossessing English mill town, we do not love our city because it is lovely, but because it is ours, and therefore we determine to make it lovely.
It's still 20 minutes before game time this lovely spring evening with rain only in the forecast. There is no milling throng at the gate. Maybe the talk of rain kept folks at home.
But the crowd begins to swell and jell after a while, and the sense of anticipation is the same as on every other opening night. It hits you when you get your first, elevated, electrifying glimpse of the green, green field. Is there any other shade of green so young and hopeful as that of a ballpark under the lights opening night?
All over the country, others are having the same opening night high. In a hundred ballparks, major and minor, at home and away, old men dream dreams and young men see visions. Up north in Springdale, Ark., they're not just opening the season but their new stadium, home of the mouth-filling Northwest Arkansas Naturals. I'm so glad the state's poultry capital didn't pick a name like the Fighting Chickens. (Was it Richard Nixon whom an over-enthusiastic admirer once dubbed the Fighting Quaker?)
All thought of politics and other dross drops away like the years, left behind at the office, as a big black man in a blindingly white frock coat steps up to home plate like steel-drivin' John Henry. He is there to sing the national anthem in a voice that needs no amplification. In a magnificent basso profundo, Mr. Isom Kelly rolls out the anthem like an all-encompassing banner waving high over the park in the restive wind.
The ballplayers, caps over hearts, line up patriotically along the first and third base lines in stiff rows. Only the Travs' No. 15 swings and sways a little to the star-spangled music, unable to help himself. It's a tribute to the music of the night, to the return of spring, to The Game.
Once again the ritual is under way. And I hear myself murmuring the Shehecheyanu, the Hebrew blessing said on holidays and festivals: Blessed be the Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has preserved us in life, sustained us, and allowed us to reach this season. Thank you, Lord, for letting me make another opening night.
What a voice the frock-coated Mr. Kelly has. It matches his outfit: majestic. They can hear him out on the berm behind the outfield fence where families have spread their picnic blankets, and over in the beer garden along the right-field line where the smokers are quarantined, and high up in the little skyboxes, which still seem like an imperial imposition on this most republican of sports.
Like the Constitution itself, baseball artfully balances liberty and order. On the baseball field, as classically proportioned as Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian Man, a base-stealing, wild-pitching, beanball-throwing, umpire-taunting sport meets neat, unassailable, predetermined geometric order.
The game's carefully delineated lines stretch from perfectly pentagonal home plate past the carefully circumscribed diamond of an infield into eternity. Such is the vision: An aristocracy of merit arising out of the rough-and-tumble of equal opportunity. Like it says on the dollar bill, a New Order of the Ages.
After the first sip of cold draft, the first bite of hot dog, the first look up at the Little Rock skyline across the river, and beyond that the dark, dark night sky, the world seems like a mighty fine place. Everything is as it should be. It's spring, the stars and planets move in their celestial order, the universe testifies to the elegant grace of time, and you're at the very center of it.
War, famine, pestilence, death, all that editorial grist, have been left behind. The Game envelops all. Time itself dissolves, for theoretically a tied baseball game could go on forever.
Who won, who lost? The score is Midland (Tex.) Rockhounds 3, Arkansas Travelers 2 when the game is called on account of a tornado in the eighth. (How do you mark that on the scorecard?) One minute you're deep into admiration for a perfect play in a perfect world, the next you're dodging a tornado. That's Arkansas. That's life. All the sweeter for being so fleeting. The moral of the story: Be sure to enjoy the game before it's called.
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