“Of course you can!”



“You can’t steal first base.”  old baseball adage

I went to see “42 – the Jackie Robinson Story” recently with my 3 kids.  We all liked it.  In fact, I liked it so much that I went to see it again with my father, brother and step-mother.  They liked it, too, even though they aren’t big baseball fans.  Any movie that deals directly with extreme racial prejudice – probably the ugliest scar in our nation’s history – but yet still appeals to all ages (we ranged in age from 11-80) must be well done. For me, of course, it certainly helped that the context for this particular study of racism was baseball.

There are several memorable lines of dialogue in the movie, some of which were historically accurate quotes (I verified that by consulting the volume of  Dickson’s “Baseball’s Greatest Quotations” in my library).  One particular line that struck me was when Branch Rickey explained to Robinson why he was willing to risk bringing a black man into white baseball:  “There was something rotten at the core of the game I loved,” an apologetic Rickey confessed.  Then he looks admiringly at Robinson and declares: “You let me love baseball again.” It is a beautiful moment, made so by Rickey’s sincerity, wonderfully conveyed by Harrison Ford’s superb acting.

Personally, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love baseball.  Racial integration of baseball was complete by the mid-60’s when the game first grabbed my attention.  The influx of Latin players was just beginning, but that clearly was not the same cultural struggle that integrating blacks had been, again largely due to Robinson’s efforts (or, as the movie depicts in painful detail, his “guts not to fight back”).  The repeated labor strife that caused strikes and lock-outs in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s were certainly aggravating, but I never let my feelings toward management or labor affect my love of the game.  Clearly most other fans didn’t either as the game has always returned stronger than ever after its seemingly fatal self-inflicted wounds.

While waiting to see “42”, I was twice shown the trailer for the latest remake of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.”  The last scene previewed is one where Nick Caraway (Tobey McGuire) tries to convince Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) that he can’t relive the past.  Gatsby smirks and replies emphatically, “Of course you can!”   His tone and look clearly express his glee at such a prospect and his intention to enjoy the experience again and again.

I found myself wondering whether that is the lure of baseball – that you can relive the past every single time you walk into a park or listen to a game on the radio.   I heard clearly in my head the voice of James Earl Jones as Terrence Mann in “Field of Dreams,” telling Ray Kinsella that “America has rolled by like an army of steam rollers… and baseball has marked the time.  This field, this game, is a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that was once good, and could be again.”  http://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=youtube+james+earl+jones+field+of+dreams&mid=246BF89D5393D24FF624246BF89D5393D24FF624&view=detail&FORM=VIRE1

I doubt that Gatsby had baseball in mind when he was so anxious to relive the past, but we each have our weaknesses.  Sadly, most people believe that we should avoid reliving history.  (In my opinion, they erroneously apply Santayana’s assertion that “those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”)   There are events in history worth repeating, and certainly many of them have taken place on the baseball diamond.  Occasionally one will occur that amazes you in the first place and then shocks you to learn that it is, in fact, a repeat of history.  That happened just last week when the Brewers’ rookie Jean Segura stole first base.  That’s right, he stole first base, and he wasn’t the first MLB player to do so.

I won’t write the 500 words or so necessary to explain how it happened. The short clip linked below shows the entire scene. http://ca.sports.yahoo.com/blogs/mlb-big-league-stew/jean-segura-steals-second-then-steals-first-bizarre-103642855–mlb.html  I will report that I knew such an astounding event was not the first in MLB history.

Also in my library of baseball books is one entitled “The Man Who Stole First Base.”  It is a series of baseball vignettes compiled by Rangers radio announcer Eric Nadel and published in 1989.  It starts with the title story recounting how Herman “Germany” Schaefer went from first base to second, back to first and then back to second again.  Unlike Segura, however, all of Schaefer’s movements were intentional. Re-reading Nadel’s book this week I realized that I am reliving part of my own past.  In 1989 when I bought the book, I was living in Dallas and was a rabid Rangers fan.  I either attended in person or listened on radio to virtually every game of the season.  My wife came to hate the sound of Eric Nadel’s voice, along with that of his then play-by-play partner, Mark Holtz.  I am reminded of this by the inscription on the first page of the book just above Eric Nadel’s signature:  “Jennifer, thanks for putting up with us for 162 nights a year! Your pal, Eric.”

I don’t remember when I got Nadel to sign the book or how he knew to try to ameliorate the tension between my marriage and my love of baseball. (Notice that I didn’t mention her above in the list of family members attending the movie “42.”) Even 24 years later that tension is not gone.   I recently acquired an iphone (and also kept my Blackberry!) and then bought the MLB “At Bat” app.  I can now listen to the radio broadcast of every single MLB game – either the home or away announcers.  I have sampled almost all the teams’ broadcasts and none are better than the Rangers.  Welcome back into my marriage, Eric Nadel.   Of course, I have also found my way back to the Rangers as my favorite team now that the Astros are “reconstructing” and Lance Berkman has moved from HOU to NYY to STL to TEX.  Favorite player + old Favorite Team = Reliving History.  The only question now is whether at age 54 I can resist the temptation to listen to every game any better than I did at age 30?

Of course I can’t.  It’s the game I love.