There's still magic in baseball

... And something righteous, even patriotic about cheering for underdogs

Posted: Sunday, August 04, 2002

So there I was the other day in front of the tube, colorfully expressing my displeasure with Lou Pinella over his incomprehensible decision to leave a starting pitcher on the mound even after his obvious lack of control had put the Mariners behind early -- again.

I began thinking. What is this madness that keeps me mesmerized? I surf over to the History Channel. OK, this looks good. Hmmm, World War II footage -- that should take my mind off it. I am determined not to flip back to the game. But I do. I can't help it.

For as long as I can remember, I've loved the game of baseball.

Like most youngsters, I tasted organized ball in Little League, but I preferred the flavor of choosing up sides and playing in the heat of July in the intersection of Sherman Avenue and Liberty Street in Hawthorne, N.Y. We'd run the bases until long after sundown, stopping, grudgingly, only for an occasional car. No matter that our "Field of Dreams" was concrete and curbs, we were safe there in front of my friend Jimmy Murphy's house, close to parental supervision, but free of its interference.

Actually, we had two venues. The other was the sloping yard along the side of my house where the tall trees lining quiet Warren Avenue became the bleachers and roofs of our favorite major league ballparks, the rustle of leaves the roar of the crowd.

Those trees were the genesis of countless daydreams, of towering grand slams in the bottom of the ninth in the seventh game of some future World Series -- shots that would do the impossible, like escape Yankee Stadium into the street, a feat that has never been accomplished.

The white sheets drying on our carousel clothes line didn't add to the imagery, but we could ignore them as an essential blemish. They provided the only shield against a foul ball for the glass storm door on the side of the house.

Summer evenings often were spent stretched out on the living room rug, the black and white tuned to the Brooklyn Dodgers playing at Ebbets Field.

It's growing dark outside, but I leave the lights off. I'm focused on the tiny screen. I don't remember multiple camera angles or instant replay. I do remember ads for beer, shaving cream and blades.

In the 1950s, "Dem Bums" were my team. I don't know why it wasn't the New York Yankees or the New York Giants. That's just the way it turned out. I couldn't have put it into words then, but the forever-the-bridesmaid Dodgers taught me there was something righteous, even patriotic about pulling for an "underdog."

And, oh, they'd served in that capacity so well from the year I was born to the year I was 8. They'd lost the World Series to the Bronx Bombers in 1947. They lost the series again to the pinstriped punks two years later in 1949, and again in 1952 and 1953.

The Yanks were on a tear back then, winning five World Series in a row between 1949 and 1953. They played in 15 between 1947 and 1964, winning 11 championships. For my playmates who were Yankee fans, those guys were invincible.

I think I remember the "shot heard 'round the world," Bobby Thompson's infamous walk-off homer that crushed the Bums' hopes and sent the New York Giants to the World Series in 1951 -- against the Yankees, who won, of course.

I would have been 4 years old then, so perhaps my recollections aren't firsthand, but acquired after a lifetime of hearing uncountable repetitions of Russ Hodges' now famous call, "The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win. ..."

I'm sure I remember being disappointed in 1954 when the Giants won the National League pennant leaving the Dodgers in second place five games back, and then went on to blank Cleveland in four games to win the Series.

It seemed my team, which had never won a World Series, was destined to be forever "a loser." I looked with some envy on Yankee fans who knew the joy of rooting for "a winner." It made me wonder what it was like to wake each day expecting your team to win, not wondering how they would lose.

It didn't matter that Brooklyn had been consistently at or near the top of the National League virtually all my short life. They hadn't won the big one. Even the Giants had done that five times.

In 1955, I was 8, a perfect year for magic. It is the first baseball year I really remember in detail. The Dodgers finally won their first series, downing their hated cross-town rivals. Johnny Podres shut out the Yankees 2-0 in the seventh game.

My heroes -- Duke Snider, Gil Hodges, Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Carl Furillo, Pee Wee Reese, Jim Gilliam, Sandy Amoros and the others -- were affirmed. Manager Walt Alston might just as well have been Walt Disney. The likes of Yankee greats such as Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford were, after all was said and done, not infallible.

The following year, Brooklyn lost to New York yet again, but disappointing as it was, the taste of defeat wasn't bitter. I can say I watched Don Larson's perfect game live on TV. I still remember Yankee catcher Yogi Berra leaping into Larson's arms as Larson strolled toward the dugout amid the deafening roar. He looked in a fog.

Those were great times, before the Dodgers disappeared to Los Angeles, before the Giants jumped to San Francisco, before we were old enough to view the sport from the broader, even jaded perspective of adulthood.

Today, I cheer the Seattle Mariners, another team that has never won a World Series, or for that matter a pennant. But I don't think of them as underdogs. So in many respects, I know now what it feels like to wake up each day expecting my team to win.

The Mariners are a gifted group of players led by one of the smartest managers in baseball. Last year they won a remarkable 116 games, but lost in the first round of the playoffs. Fans in Seattle say there is "unfinished business" to complete.

Now, however, I know a different kind of disappointment, the kind my Yankee-loving friends must have felt. I can tell you that being bummed out by a team you know can lose is a different emotion from being bummed by a team you know should win.

So, against all rationality, the inanimate television screen takes the brunt of occasional heated epithets as I rail at too many up-in-the-strike zone pitches that find their way into the upper deck or those infuriating strikeouts and double-play balls with runners in scoring position.

Yet, despite the hitting slump that seemed to last the entire month of July, there they are, my Mariners, sitting atop the A.L. West Division.

And I know, tonight, win or lose, I'll be back in front of the TV, or listening to the radio tomorrow and the day after with the same expectations, as high summer becomes fall and the playoffs approach.

Will they be there? Is this the year they make it to the Big Dance? It's too early to say. Yogi said it best. "It ain't over 'til it's over."

And should they fail, well, "wait'll next year."

Hal Spence is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion.

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