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When it was a Game

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The Washington Nationals played the St. Louis Cardinals in the first game of what Major League Baseball insists on calling the National League Divisional Series - NLDS. The rest of the English-speaking world calls it: The Playoffs.

The game was in St. Louis and began at 3 PM Eastern. I am in Alexandria, Virginia so I sat on the couch in my den starting at 11 AM. I wanted to be ready.

I was transported back to being a little boy, in a little Cape Cod house on West Maple Drive in New Hyde Park, NY - Long Island.

Today it would be known as a working class neighborhood but back then we didn't have adjectives. It was just home.

When I was maybe five or six my dad, a life-long Dodger fan, took my older brother and I to a game at Ebbets Field. The Dodgers moved to Los Angeles after the 1957 season, so I couldn't have been more than 10 at the time.

I don't think I remember the game, but I remember - if only from the retelling - that Duke Snider hit a home run and the place exploded. I wasn't paying that much attention, and what little attention I was paying was aimed at a flock of birds that flew out of the top of the stands in right field, frightened into flight by the noise.

My dad leaned over and asked if I knew what had happened. I pointed up at the spot and said "the birds flew away."

Ebbets Field was never known as "The Field." The Polo Grounds were never known as "The Grounds." But if you said, "The Stadium" it only meant one place: Yankee Stadium

While waiting for the Nats-Cards, I came across an replay of Ken Burns' "When it was a Game" - part three of his history of baseball - on HBO.

Toward the end of the hour-long program, sportscaster Bob Costas talked about the importance of baseball cards back in those days.

"I never heard any kid offer another kid money for a card, he said. "I'd flip you for it; I'll trade you for it," but "they were for keeping or for putting on the spokes of your bike to make a very cool noise while you rode down the street.

"But, they had no value other than your attachment to baseball."

Then he got to the gum. As soon has he mentioned the flat, rectangular piece of gum that came with every five-cent pack of baseball cards I said, out loud, "The smell."

There is no way to describe the smell of those baseball cards but if you are of a certain age you can smell it now, just as I could when Costas said,

"Whatever card was resting against that gum would retain the aroma of that gum for roughly three centuries.

"If you could find an Eli Grba [right-handed pitcher for the NY Yankees in 1959-1960] today, that was next to that rectangular piece of gum you could still sense that gum on Eli Grba's jersey.

"It's a frightening concept, now that I think of it."

Baseball was not a TV game back then. Maybe a game on Saturday would be televised, but the screens were small, the resolution was like a 1983 desktop computer, and it was only in black & white.

When I was following the Yankees in the 1950s, and then the Mets in the early 1960s, I did it by listening to the radio.

I am old enough to remember what we now call "recreations" of out-of-town games - that was when a guy sat in a studio in New York (or Boston, or Washington) and read the ticker of the pitch-by-pitch action and pretended to call the game live - including smacking a wood block with a stick to mimic a bat hitting a ball.

It wasn't real. But, when you're 10 years old, dreaming of being Bobby Shanz (because he was short and left-handed) and taking the mound at "The Stadium," it didn't have to be real. It was already magic.

The Nats won the first game of the NLDS 3-2. But it wouldn't mattered if they hadn't scored two in the top of the 8th to take the lead.

They're still the home team and they're in the playoffs.

More than a half-century later, it was still magic.

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