No matter who invented the game, baseball became wildly popular in the United States. One of the reasons the game caught on is that it requires very little in the way of equipment. A grassy field, a ball and a bat are pretty much the only essentials. We played in a vacant lot littered with stones and broken glass. Pieces of cardboard were used for bases. If you were lucky enough to own a glove, you shared it with the other players, often leaving it at your position when you came in to bat so that the kid playing that position on the other team could just pick it up and use it while in the field. Bats were scuffed and nicked from years of use...sometimes even balls, as the seams began to unravel, had to be taped to keep the game going. We enforced our own rules with no adult supervision. Baseball was our God, and we played every day until the sun went down to hone our skills .
We now go to the local Double A class Staten Island Yankee games in their beautiful ballpark in St. George down by the ferry. I still get a little thrill every time I see that emerald green grass and those painted baselines. The players look about 15 years old to me, young, strong and having the time of their lives. Each one chases the same dream I once chased...to become a professional baseball player. They shag flies in the outfield and warm up their arms. They do exercises to stretch out their calf and back muscles to minimize the chance of injury. Before the game a nervous high-schooler sings the Star Spangled Banner while older patrons stand reverently with hands over hearts, shushing the young people around them who don't yet fully appreciate their great good fortune at having been born in America.
The stands are filled with families who come here partly because they can't afford to go see the New York Yankees up in the Bronx. Young kids in oversized team jerseys and hats bound up and down the stairs to make another run for the "all-you-can-eat" concession food that comes with their game package tickets. They pester the bullpen pitchers and catchers to sign things, and the players do their best to look aloof, all the while pinching themselves at the thought that kids actually want their autographs. The dads in the crowd look a little dreamy-eyed as they time-travel back to their baseball days. Eyes were keen enough to pick out that perfect fastball and line it to left field; legs were strong enough to run hard around the bases trying to stretch a single into a double; and hearts were untroubled enough to throw themselves totally into the game they loved and played with abandon.
Sadly, our local team had a bad season, ending up dead last in their division. Winning is great, but baseball is not all about winning. It's about hope...cheering for your team, clapping your hands during the dopey chants...Let's Go Yankees, clap, clap, clap-clap-clap. It's about hollering CHARGE as the home team organist plays: Da-da-da-DAA-da da. It's coming out of your seat as that weak grounder slips between the third baseman and the shortstop, putting a man on first. "Hey, you never know" somebody always says, "one long ball and we're back in it." Even if your team loses, it's about looking at the kids watching the fireworks after the game. Their eyes grow round the way yours did when you saw you first real fireworks display and not some guy in a pizza-man undershirt shooting Roman Candles into the night sky.
What kind of game is baseball? Grown men bring their old gloves to the ballpark, still hopeful that one day they might catch a foul ball. That's the kind of game baseball is. Baseball is America.
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