LITTLE ROCK -- It is a truth universally acknowledged among baseball fans: There is life and there is the off-season.
The off-season now thrashes to an end in the throes of March Madness, which features proto-professional athletes running around in baggy shorts under hoops while everybody else in the country dives into betting pools. They don't call it madness for nothing.
But the fit will soon be past, and even now life returns like health after a long sickness. Its first sprouts -- verdant, clear, promising -- can be found in the friendly confines of your nearest minor-league ballpark.
Hope is in the air. It's palpable. The feeling is still hard to believe this early in the year, but all the more welcome for that. The headiness of it. Yet it's as clear as a box score. The endless summer to come is only a theory in late March, but day by day it becomes sharper, mixing memory and hope. Like a familiar appetizer being served as the main course is prepared.
It's an old rule: Never rush pleasures. Or combine them. But some just go together, like spring and baseball. They make an irresistible combination on an evening in late March. And the baseball Razorbacks from the University of Arkansas are playing Memphis State at beautiful little Dickey-Stephens stadium just across the rolling river from the newspaper, only minutes away. I've got to go. The temptation is irresistible.
The first sight of the ballpark is the same every year. There is the sharp intake of breath at the little expanse of green against the urban background, like a diamond in its setting. Few things enhance the looks of downtown Little Rock like viewing it from across the river. Its snaggle-toothed skyline stands out like an Edward Hopper painting materialized. Too uneven to be anything but true.
Let a John Updike write rapturously about that "lyric little bandbox of a ball park" up in Boston called Fenway. That's how he described it in one of his star turns in the New Yorker ("Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu") back in the apogee of baseball writing, when Red Smith was still around, like a Homer racing a deadline.
But this minor-league ballpark in the middle of Arkansas has something no major-league stadium can offer: It's ours. Or as Chesterton once wrote of an English mill town, we love it not because it's the best, but because it is ours.
College baseball is to the pros as a senior prom is to Baryshnikov, yet it's still the same game. There are still glimpses of the same balletic moves when a shortstop makes an impossible catch, or almost does. And one quality colors every play, whether or not anything happens: expectation.
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