The opening game of the season is all promise. Anything could happen. In the fall, at the end of another dismal season, baseball fans have been heard to vow: Wait'll next year! There was a time when that phrase was the unofficial motto of Brooklyn, N.Y., when it was still home to the Dodgers, dem bums.
Well, this could be next year in these parts. Which is why, every April, we the local devoted make it to the Arkansas Travelers' opener at their little jewel box of a retro stadium just across the river from Arkansas' statewide newspaper, one of the few left in the country whose circulation covers a whole state.
Spring is in the air here, and with it, hope. For a baseball fan, the year is divided into two parts: life and the off-season. The long winter is past, the endless summer awaits. Inside these friendly confines, time has been abolished. Here its passage is marked by innings, not minutes and hours. Theoretically a tied baseball game could go on forever, from here to eternity.
Life began again in these precincts at 6:10 p.m., April 5th, 2013, with the first pitch of the first game of the season, precisely 23 hours after the original opener the night before had been rained out. So the fans got a double-header. Which only heightened the anticipation, the underlying exhilaration as you walked through the gate.
All was new again. Yet familiar. You felt the same old intake of breath at the first sight of the diamond below. The grass was still winter-scruffy in the lengthening shadows of the dying day, but time will take care of that, day by day, rain by rain in these fecund latitudes.
It wasn't just the look of things opening night that revivified. I'd forgotten the sounds. You could close your eyes and see the game. Even before it began. Listen! To the rustle of the gathering crowd, like that of people filing into the Metropolitan Opera before the opening curtain. Hear the cries of the hawkers: Peanuts! Popcorn! Crackerjacks! and these days, Nachos! The sounds say it all: the crack of the bat, the thwack of the ball in the catcher's mitt, the first shouts of many to come, the strains of organ chords over the crackle of the public address system ... and you know just where you are. In America watching the American game.
Technically you're at Dickey-Stephens Stadium in North Little Rock, Ark., but you could be in a Norman Rockwell poster. Yes, all the sights and sounds could be recorded electronically and then listed in order, alphabetically or chronologically, by volume or duration, and the game itself reduced to a box score. Just as you can reduce an election to precinct-by-precinct returns, intelligence to IQ and education to test scores. Not that all those considerations are unimportant. Indeed, they may be decisive. They tell us a lot. But they miss a lot, too, namely everything. Everything worth feeling.
Disaggregated may be the current term for it -- breaking down the whole into parts, wisdom into data points, rhetoric into talking points. The only thing lost is the whole, which is greater than its parts.
A curious thing seems to be happening to our power to perceive. It's gone. Or rather it's still there -- indeed, we perceive in ever greater detail -- but perception in the sense of understanding what we're seeing grows fainter and fainter. The forest is lost amidst all those trees. There is no connecting theme that makes sense of all that pointillist data, elevating the material to the meaningful, even spiritual. A succession of the game's highlights flashing past in 60 seconds on the evening news is not the game.
Oliver Sachs, the physician and writer who could be remarkably lucid in either role, once wrote a description of a patient stricken with a rare form of visual agnosia -- an inability to recognize what he saw even if he saw much more than most of us. The doctor called it the case of "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat." What an arresting title -- I told you he was a writer as well as doctor.
The doctor would hand his patient, a charming and cultivated older man, a common object and ask him to describe it. A glove, say. It only puzzled him. But after a while, he could tell the doctor just what it was: "A continuous surface infolded on itself." Its significance, its purpose, its wholeness ... escaped him. A change purse? With different compartments for each kind of coin?
Dr. Sachs, in that long-ago article for a medical journal, not only had diagnosed his patient but anticipated the intellectual climate of our own times. His patient, he wrote, "had abstract attitude -- indeed, nothing else. And it was precisely this, his absurd abstractedness of attitude -- absurd because unleavened with anything else -- which rendered him incapable of judgment."
Dr. Sachs' patient comes to mine every time the usual experts explain that the way for government to save more is to have it spend more. The experts must be right. They have charts.
Baseball, at least on the minor-league level, is still whole. Class AA ball, as in the Texas League, may be the dividing point between baseball as she once was, the baseball of blessed memory, and the overpaid, over-hyped, and over-specialized meta-business it has become in our great cities. Only in the small towns, out on the prairies or in the dusty arroyos, or in a provincial capital like Little Rock, may it still be baseball as she was. Unbroken into bits and pieces, each analyzed to death, removed from the real, full experience.
The score of the first game opening night was Arkansas Travelers 7, Frisco Roughriders 0 -- not that the score mattered. It can't convey the fresh quality of unprogrammed baseball, the mix of hits and errors, and the near no-hitter and comedic wild throws that night. And the realization that, in baseball, anything can change any time. As in life. To break the game apart, to disaggregate it, is to lose the understanding slowly developed over the years that what matters is the game itself.
A lot happens in baseball even when nothing's happening -- as between pitches when possibilities need to be anticipated, explored, weighed, planned for.... Besides a home run, the bottom of the first featured a conference along the third base line between the two managers and three umpires that went on long enough to negotiate a major peace treaty. Which was fine with the few of us left who want to keep the game as slow and pastoral as it should be, a refuge from the race against the clock that is the mark of contemporary life and futility. To remain the thinking man's game, baseball needs to provide time to think.
To speed up the game, to break it down into plays, to disaggregate it, is to lose the understanding slowly developed over the years that what matters is not the score but the game itself.
Why was this night different from all other nights of the year? Because on this opening night, the game had been restored, memories of past seasons refreshed, the present hallowed, and the loveliest game renewed.
As I walked out of the gate, somewhere in the recesses of the mind an old blessing returned, the Shehecheyanu, recited on the first night of Passover as it is at the beginning of every Jewish festival: "Blessed are thou, O Lord, Ruler of the Universe, who has granted us life, sustained us, and allowed us to reach this season." Amen and Play Ball.