Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Greatest Game I: Homer

The ball traveled along its own arc high above the grass outfield, climbing until gravity helped to complete the arc and it landed in the left field stands. In any other game this would be out of bounds, and the judges, in this case umpires would command the moment and a replay would ensue. Instead, it marked the end of close to fifteen innings of scoreless baseball. No matter that the still suspect A-Rod hit it instead of the favored Jeter, or even the newcomer Teixera. The real star was the home run itself.

Imagine the moment of genius that created the home run, a whimsical moment in which someone saw how much fun it would be to build the game around a play that would be considered "out of bounds" in lesser games. Some bureaucracy or group of accountants might have come up with the perfectly set dimensions of the game: ninety feet between bases, sixty feet-six inches from the pitcher's mound to home plate, the size of home plate itself, the angles of the foul lines. An engineer might have devised the fielding positions, especially shortstop, and figured the way each infielder has just enough time to complete a double play.

But, all of that takes place inside the "diamond." Who would pay thirty bucks for two hot dogs and a beer for that? Who would have stayed for over five hours throughout a summer's night waiting in high anticipation of a walk, a bunt, a sac fly and a single to end the game? These are all wonderful small things for the purists, but one doesn't sit for five hours on the edge of the seat waiting for a walk.

The corporate "managers" of baseball and their media shills call that Money Ball, but that is a huge untruth and homer knows it. If truth be told, fans are bored to tears, frankly, by walks, even when they keep a rally going. And what of the contemporary players' ability to keep fouling off pitch after pitch, confounding and tiring the pitchers? Except for an occasional 10 pitch marathon at-bat in a crucial moment of a crucial game, the average player's fouling off four or five pitches is simply a bore, a wasted talent.

The best "foul" ball of all is the only one that counts as fair: the homer. It is why there are still Little League parades in small towns, why high school infielders in Maine accept the numbing sting of a catch during a cold early-April practice, and why there is always hope when the home team is behind. The home field is frequently designed for home team players to hit homers, round the bases to touch home and send us on our way to our own homes, where we think about the arc of that homer for hours, perhaps days the way Julia Child thought about suffles.

We do not dream of walks or foul balls. We do not look forward to the day that the fifth-starter pitches, except that we know fifth-starter's real expertise is giving up homers. Homer was the first money ball, as Ruth was the first money player. Myths arise out of homers. Quickly: who holds the all time record for walks? Who was the best bunter in history? Tell the truth: did you ever fight traffic, pay for parking, spend your mortgage payment for tickets and food, in order to see the best base stealer that ever lived?

I thought not. We leave our homes to see Homer, and especially that rarest of Homers, the Grand Slam, an invention of such brilliance that the people at Apple or Google can only sit in wonder at its perfection.

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