Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Baseball -- in the stands again

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WASHINGTON -- A week in advance of opening day of the 2012 baseball season, my six-year-old daughter brought home from her grade-school library a colourful, hand-drawn libretto of the operatic aria known as Take Me Out to the Ball Game. Set at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn during the 1947 World Series between the Dodgers and the Yankees, the book showcased the national pastime at its postwar zenith: Jackie Robinson and Joe DiMaggio on the field; Red Barber in the radio booth; the Dodgers' Sym-Phony Band blaring like hellions and Dem Bums' flamboyant partisans in all their full-throated glory.

In the soft focus of the artist's craft, I swore I saw my father and his brothers in the stands.

Ten years after that World Series, at the age of 71/2, I would attend my first big-league game at that same ballpark -- Brooklyn versus the Phillies on a September Friday night -- and fall asleep in the fifth inning. Two days later, the Dodgers absconded for California, leaving my borough bereft and me with a tattered scorecard that I still treasure and hazy memories of men in flannels seen through the yellow lights.

Now it was springtime in another century at a newer but less enchanting ball yard a dozen blocks south of the U.S. Capitol. The Washington Nationals were hosting the Cincinnati Reds on a windy, sunny, chilly, exuberant, expectant afternoon: opening day in Washington.

A bad, bad team since leaving Montreal, gifted this season by a couple of great young arms and the eternal optimism of April, the Nats returned home from Chicago and New York impossibly in first place.

"Where can I buy World Series tickets?" I asked the first usher I met after buying a standing-room pass to the sold-out game.

"Give it another week," he replied.

The fellow turned and I saw his name tag: "B. Lickdyke, Fan Ambassador, Brooklyn, New York."

He was in his mid-70s, I correctly guessed, and his first name was Brian. He let me stand just behind the $150 seats with my $20 ticket. I asked him about the first World Series game he ever attended and, as New York boys do, he recalled every small detail.

Incredibly, eerily, wonderfully, it was in 1947, that halcyon October from the picture book that my daughter had brought home from school.

Below us on the perfect grass, everything was at it should be: the players of both teams trotting out for their introductions; a moment of silence for Gary Carter; the military jets flying overhead in precise formation; a gigantic American flag that stretched from deep right-centre to the left-field foul pole; wounded soldiers saluting and being cheered. Only the president of the United States was absent from what had been, for more than a century, the presidential opener.

"I hear he's someplace else," shrugged Brian Lickdyke.

But I get Barack Obama's schedule by email every day: He was, in fact, in the White House, chatting by phone with Nicolas Sarkozy and giving campaign interviews to chosen anchormen from states deemed more vital than the baseball vote.

"Did you ever hit against major-league pitching?" Lickdyke asked me, out of the blue.

I confessed, sadly, that I hadn't. (Not that I hadn't dreamed of it.) But he said that, when he was in the army, he got to take a few swings against a guy named Frank Baumann, a respectable left-hander who spent a few seasons with both colours of Sox.

"One thing I realize as I get older," said the fan ambassador, "is how hard it is to make the major leagues."

It was a pretty good game for a blustery April day. The Nats took a 2-0 lead into the ninth, awarded the Reds two runs to tie, then stole the win in extra innings on a hit batsman, a single, a ground out and a wild pitch to reduce their magic number to 312.

The next Monday, I was in the stands again: the United States of America versus William Roger Clemens. This was at the U.S. District Courthouse on Constitution Avenue, opening day of the government's second attempt to prove that -- just as baseball had the power to turn bums like the Nationals into champions -- it also provided the opportunity for, as the indictment against Clemens alleged, a proud and strutting all-star to decay into a losing, lying cheat.

When the big, square right-hander entered the courtroom -- squeezed with seemingly increased difficulty into the same grey suit he wore for last summer's mistrial on charges of lying to Congress -- an older gentleman in a red T-shirt leaped from the backmost pew to pump his hand.

This turned out to be Earl Hutchinson, 77, who had played, he told me with great pride and reverence, one single game at shortstop as an emergency substitute in the long-gone Negro Leagues. Now he worked at the D.C. courthouse, bringing lunch up from the cafeteria to the judges' chambers.

For the next hour, while prosecutors and defence lawyers dissected a panel of 90 prospective jurors -- many of whom confessed that they never had heard of Roger Clemens, or his seven Cy Young Awards, or his 354 big-league victories, or his 4,672 strikeouts, or his six World Series, or his alleged use of anabolic steroids or human growth hormone -- Earl Hutchinson and I shared memories.

He, too, had grown up in New York City, just as African-Americans finally were being accepted into the racist majors, and he, too, had been at Ebbets Field back in that historic year of the Sym-Phony Band and Red Barber and Jackie Robinson, the season that, it might be said, made it possible for Barack Obama, not yet born, to become president of the United States.

The old man remembered the day the New York Giants fielded an all-black infield, and Satchel Paige walking in from the bullpen at Yankee Stadium -- "it took him half an hour to get there" -- to get the great DiMaggio to pop up. "My grandfather took Babe Ruth fishing," he said.

In front of us, there were marble effigies of Moses and Hammurabi in the bleachers, and the honesty of heroes in the dock. The trial, the judge said, probably will last into June; perhaps the Nationals will, too. Then Earl Hutchinson watched the motley jurors file in and whispered to me, "These people don't know nothin' 'bout baseball."


Allen Abel is a Brooklyn-born Canadian journalist based in Washington, D.C.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 21, 2012 j6

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