In The Zone

Baseball Is Once Again Our National Religion. And Now A Word From Its Latest Convert...

By Jeff Smith

THE SUN COMES up on Easter Sunday and the whole world is crawling with Christians. Hallelujah.

Smith Rosy-fingered Dawn streaks the eastern horizon on the first day of October and everybody's a baseball fan. Play ball.

The high holy days possess the power of miracles: the magic to convert the heathen masses to passion and piety, in the former example; or to invest the mundane with lofty spirituality, as in the latter.

I still reckon myself among the agnostics who see slow and dull where true believers see measured and ritualistic on the field of dreams. I enjoyed whacking that great big orb of a softball when I was a schoolkid, but watching fat, selfish men who can't hit their weight whine over million-dollar paychecks soured me on our putative national pastime. George Will's pompous preaching on the subject hasn't helped either.

But here it is October again and damned if I haven't begun to look forward to the World Serious. Baseball has been reborn in the hearts of America, thanks in large part of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, to a kid named Kerry Wood, to a New York Yankees team that distinguishes itself by actual teamwork, and to another team that has been down so long it wouldn't quite know what to do with success, the Chicago Cubs.

There may yet be a lone Japanese soldier hiding out in some South Pacific island cave since World War II, unaware of the armistice, who does not know that batters in both leagues have knocked the hide off the ball this entire baseball season, and that a large lad whose parents apparently couldn't spell "McGuire" ended the season with 70 home runs, followed by an equally talented swinger named Sosa, who sent 66 out of the park.

Watching Mark and Sammy laugh with the press and with each other, and really enjoy getting to play their favorite game and make tons of money for it and take terrific cuts at the ball and get good wood on it a truly remarkable percent of the time, has gone a long way toward undoing the damage of free-agency and cocaine and self-absorption in baseball during the '80s and '90s.

I'd also like to include Ken Griffey Jr. in my short list of folks to thank for making baseball worth watching, because, while Junior got a trifle pecking toward the latter half of the season, it was only because the press made such a big, cosmic whoop about the single-season home-run record, and Junior got weary of answering the same dumb questions over and over again.

Beyond that though, Junior seems a pretty level-headed, decent guy, and the thing I really like about him is his swing. Damn. Have you ever witnessed a sweeter natural stroke with a piece of hickory? Junior's swing with a baseball bat is analogous to what Tiger Woods does with his driver at a golf tee: A wonderful thing to behold. Even if golf is as pointless as, say, bowling. Which it is.

Be that as it may, it's uplifting simply to witness the biomechanics of a swing so smooth and of such beauty that it barely gives evidence of the power contained within it--power to send a horsehide sphere into the cheap seats or through a windshield on Waveland Avenue, assuming the Mariners were playing the Cubbies at their place.

Anyway, it's been fun watching these overgrown boys playing very well at a game that used to be fun, and shows promise of being fun once more.

I also get a boot out of this kid Wood, the 21-year-old Cubs pitcher who struck out 20 batters in 9 innings when he was still a 20-year-old, who throws a 100-mile-an-hour fastball and never seems to wear his arm out or lose sight of the fact that he's lucky as a shit-house rat to be able to do it, and get paid a whole lot of money for it, and take the rest of the year off, after "working" for what, six months?

BUT THIS IS not a perfect world we live in, and the renaissance of Major League Baseball may end up stillborn if something is not done to rein in the runaway egos of the men in blue. For the uninitiated, these are the umpires. We finally get players like McGwire and Sosa to remain relatively normal in the face of public idolatry, and some fat-ass behind home plate is playing prima dona with the strike zone.

The perfect example happened last week when plate umpire Joe Brinkman tossed Indians manager Mike Hargrove out of the second Cleveland/Boston playoff game, followed quite shortly by Indians pitcher Dwight Gooden. Three pitches into the first half of the first inning, Hargrove "visited" the plate to protest three very obvious bad calls Brinkman had made on Gooden pitches that were right at the batter's knees. Brinkman called all three balls, when clearly to Hargrove, to Gooden, to the batter, to every sighted person on Planet Earth, to every kid who ever played a game of sandlot ball, the three pitches were in the strike zone.

The strike zone, as every American schoolboy knows, is from the knees to the letters and from the inside edge of the plate to the outside. This amounts to racial knowledge: You're human, you're American, you're male--you know this.

But over the years, and with the complicity of pitchers and batters and managers, home plate umpires have nibbled away at the strike zone in some directions, and let it grow fat and lazy in others.

In today's game it's not enough to wait breathless through the first inning to see if the pitcher can bring the heat, to learn if his breaking stuff has its hop, whether he's got the control he needs:

You've got to find out what sort of mood the umpire's in, and how liberal he feels like being with his strike zone. And in what direction. His strike zone? Excuse me, but the strike zone belongs to God and Abner Doubleday. It's not subject to human trifling. To allow a mere mortal, even if he is a home-plate umpire, to arbitrarily move it a foot outside the plate, or limit it to somewhere between the patella and the belt buckle, is an affront to everyone who ever played the game for no money.

And that amounts to roughly 100 percent of the men and boys in America. And Japan.

Joe Brinkman was wrong to call those three balls that Doc Gooden threw, over the plate and above the batter's knees. Mike Hargrove was right to call him on it, because otherwise Gooden would have been meat for the Red Sox batters. Brinkman was wrong to throw Hargrove out of the game, but the greater wrong is for the world to accept these and similar outrages.

I say this with all the passion and conviction of a foxhole convert. It's October and I am in church. Ask me next June and I'll probably have no opinion on the matter; but right now, in view of the moral malaise seeping into American society from the White House on down, I believe that nothing less than our collective soul hangs in the balance. TW

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