BOSTON - The function of baseball at its best is that of any high art: to take us out of ourselves, to recall us to life, to disrupt the normal unhappiness. It breaks up what Walker Percy called the malaise of everydayness, and reintroduces us to the sublime.
That's why I'm in this milling crowd inching its way toward storied Fenway Park, home of the Red Sox and field of too-often broken dreams. Sunday in the park with Ramirez and Papelbon and Youkilis is a kind of high holiday.
The crowd itself is a study. There are ball caps aplenty with the stylized, turn of-the-century B in colors from feminine pink to Irish green, baseball shirts with the name and number of the fan's favorite player on the back, and T-shirts bearing slogans expressing various degrees of disdain for the Sox's archrival, the hated/feared Yankees.
Some of the messages can actually be printed in a family newspaper. My favorite is worn by a petite brunette. Its demure, lower-case white letters on a red background inform: real women don't date yankee fans.
It's good to see that Boston still retains a little Beacon Hill restraint.
It occurs that the (damn) Yankees are a necessary evil in this town, for what would the Red Sox be without them? It would be like Athens without Sparta, Holmes without Moriarty, Louis without Schmeling. Every great drama must have conflict at its center.
Like the Greek chorus in a classic text, the crowd is an essential part of the performance. A Red Sox home game combines the communal and sublime, qualities so often at odds with one another that, when combined, the effect is an almost conscious exhilaration.
You realize at such moments what a small, parochial town Boston really is and why people love that about it. One can love New York, I suppose, but not in the way one loves Boston, or any other great city that still seems small.
It must have been like this when tens of thousands of Athenians poured into the amphitheater to see - no, hear - Sophocles' latest, and have their souls laid bare. Call it catharsis. The fans don't need to know the word to have the feeling.
As you shuffle down the streets and alleys toward Yawkey Way, circling the ballpark in search of your gate, you can almost feel the timeless clock of baseball being wound up. Soon there will be no minutes and hours, only outs and innings. As we pass through the turnstile, any outsized bag is inspected and tagged - a last reminder of the warring world outside.
Americans go to baseball games for the same reason Italians attend the opera or Spaniards the bullfight - not because they're looking for novelty but quite the opposite: to see how faithfully the ritual is performed and whether it can be brought to a new level. Ritual has got a bad press, as in mere ritual. Better understood, the purpose of ritual is not to re-create the past but to enter a kind of ever-present in which the only thing that counts is the sacrament, the performance, the Game.
Oh, yes, the game. Inning follows inning, with the Red Sox building a comfortable lead (11 to 7) until the top of the ninth. That's when the missing element of the game reappears: suspense. The Orioles put two men on base, and the Red Sox call on No. 58, their ace reliever - Jonathan Papelbon, who's got an earned run average of something like .91 and the wild devotion of Boston fans.
I begin to see why they call him Wild Thing when, with the bases loaded after a Red Sox error, Papelbon walks in a run. It's a refreshing sight:
Thirty-five thousand Americans on their feet totally absorbed in something other than themselves.
The cozy stadium resounds with one name as the chant goes on and on:
Pa-pel-bon! Pa-pel-bon! Pa-pel-bon! The score goes to 11-9 with the bases still loaded and the Orioles' go-ahead run on first. And this is the way the game ends, this is the way the game ends, not with a bang but an infield grounder. Papelbon is saved, or saves the game, or both. It scarcely matters.
A good time is had by all except the Orioles and the lackluster pitchers on both teams. It isn't great baseball but it's still riveting. Or as Ravel was supposed to have said after hearing the first performance of his "Bolero," it's not music but it's magnificent.
The crowd files out, satisfied enough with the win. The Yankees wouldn't be in town till the next week for a five-game series that would prove disastrous (the Boston Massacre). Today hope was still in the air. So was premonition. One could almost feel the Greek tragedy that is the pre-2004 history of the Red Sox stirring again.
Without Jason Varitek behind the plate - he's recovering from knee surgery - the Sox pitchers look lost out there on that lonely mound. Center field seems empty with Johnny Damon gone, having committed the Boston equivalent of high treason by joining the Yankees. With no warning, the same fans who were just cheering wildly can turn into a swarm of furies.
As the afternoon waned, slowly the shadows began to creep across the third base line and out into the field, like the other, lesser world out there returning. For some reason I think of Joe DiMaggio's unmatchable 56-game hitting streak in 1941, the last pre-war season. In Game 35 he went 2-for-5 against the Detroit Tigers in Yankee Stadium. The date was June 22, 1941, the day Hitler, sparing his old ally Stalin any formal notice, sent his panzer divisions hurtling into Russia.