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Ahead of the Game

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

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.

Anyone who says baseball is a slow game isn't watching it with a proper appreciation of the possibilities at every moment, of what can happen with every pitch. And between them. Just as it is the silences before the words that make great dialogue.

Inning after inning, what might happen becomes what didn't. A run here, a great catch there, bobbles everywhere. And then, with the score 2 to 2 in the bottom of the eighth ... Arkansas' bats come to life. By the end of the home team's five-run eighth, it's 7 to 2, the final score. Expectations are more than fulfilled.

And yet something is missing. The stands are full, a sea of red-and-white, the Razorback colors, but it all seems a tamer version of the real game, as college baseball will. It is all -- how should I put it? -- too wholesome.

The clean-cut young players are still at the outset of their careers and life. There is none of that Texas League mix of weathered old-timers on the way down and promising young rookies on their way up, mixed with players who will always be minor-league.

It is in the minor leagues where the spirit of baseball still lives, not fresh but gritty. But tonight all is washed clean as the fresh uniforms. The creases are yet unformed on the young faces, the malice of time still to come.

The white-bread families in the stands are an advertisement for the good life. The grandma a seat over reaches across the squirming little boy between us and brushes the popcorn crumbs off his seat, keeping things as neat as in her living room. At some point Edward Hopper has given way to Norman Rockwell.

The well-behaved crowd erupts in cheers in the eighth, Arkansas's big inning, but it's the kind of cheering you might hear at a college graduation. Loud but appropriate. All is niceness, and I'm not sure I can stand it.

The little stadium is a well-designed, G-rated, deliberate re-creation of an early 20th Century ballpark. In tonight's crowd, there is a paucity of the hard-faced women and beefy men in unfortunate shorts you might see at a poorly attended minor-league game in the middle of a lackluster season.

It's enough to make you wonder what's happened to the American character, and whether it's still capable of a little saving decadence. All I ask is just a touch of the sordid. But the Arkansas Travelers of the Texas League play their first home game here Thursday, April 14th, starting at 7:10, and we live in hope.

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