BASEBALL IGNORANCE IS BLISS AT A DISTANCE

LONDON — Ah, England. My favorite place to watch baseball.

“Baseball?” you say. “They don’t have baseball over there.”

You are correct. They also don’t have cursing at umpires, free agency, domed stadiums or Rickey Henderson.

They don’t have players driving drunk. They don’t have agents moaning “$3 million a year is an insult to my client.”

All they have on baseball is what you find on the back pages of the British newspapers: the scores from two days ago, and the standings.

You know what? You could fall in love with the game all over again.

I call it the magic of distance. If you’ve ever been overseas with U.S. sports fan, you know what I mean. It’s like plucking a fish out of water and placing it on a table. First it lies still, in a state of shock. Then it starts to thrash.

So it goes with the U.S. sports fan. First, he lands in London or Paris. Then he finds his hotel. Then he goes to sleep.

Then he wakes up screaming.

“SCORES! WHERE ARE THE SCORES? MY GOD, RITA, THIS TV MUST BE BROKEN!” Fan withdrawal

Suddenly, his whole world has changed. Yesterday he had ESPN; now he has cricket. Yesterday, he had touchdowns, rebounds, the Heisman Trophy ballot; now he has cricket.

He begins to sweat. He goes through withdrawal. He misses Bob Costas. He dreams of Nike commercials. Soon, the smallest niblet of sports news looms like a juicy steak. And he must have it.

Years ago, in a Swiss cafe, I saw two Americans fight over a week-old
“Sports Illustrated.” Once, on a Greek island, a Texas man begged me for the Dallas Mavericks’ second-round draft pick. In Pamplona, Spain, a Michigan tourist grilled me on the Tigers.

“I hear Lou Whitaker went 2-for-3 the other night,” he said excitedly.

Two-for-3? Lou Whitaker? Who cares? If the man were in Detroit, that would mean as much to him as where he left his socks.

But overseas? Something happens. Sports becomes your link to home, your shot of identity, a reminder that somewhere, far away, your old life is safe, cradled in the roar of the crowd. You forget the bad. You remember the good.

The magic of distance. Reading the fine print

And if you ask me, that’s the best way to watch baseball these days. Let’s face it. We are clobbered by the game. It comes at us at least 30 times a day, between local news, network news, ESPN and highlight shows. Statistics fall like rain, soaking the fantasy league geeks who have nothing else in their lives but Danny Tartabull’s batting average.

The actual games, too damn long to begin with, are broadcast and rebroadcast. We know how many votes separate the All-Star candidates, we know who’s coming back from drug rehab, we know whose groin is pulled.

We know too much. We should try some distance. Here, in England, for example, this is all you get on Thursday’s Tigers game: a tiny box score that says “Milwaukee 9, Detroit 3.” And underneath, where they mention home runs only — singles and doubles are not important enough — there is this:
“Tettleton (13).” No details. No explanations.

As I read it, my imagination was awakened. I wondered about that (13). Was it over the roof? Was it a solo shot? Did it come on the first pitch?

I saw Tettleton in my mind, the crack of the bat, the long, beautiful arc of the ball. I imagined some kid, holding his glove out in the bleachers. Because I had not watched the replay 200 times — with some announcer screaming “BOOM!” — the picture was somehow fresher, sweeter. It was my own.

Once upon a time, this is how baseball was in America. Mothers kept score, listening to the afternoon radio and scribbling in oversized score books. When the kids came home from school, they pored over the penciled markings, they dreamt about their heroes, what might happen tomorrow.

The game was not a soap opera, not a police blotter, not high finance. It was simply a game. And, for most people, it was far away.

Which was part of its magic.

We could use some of that today, in all our sports, in football, basketball, hockey. For the next few weeks, I will get it in baseball. I will follow the game long-distance. I will pore through the small print. I will see the action only in my mind.

I will be blissfully ignorant of expansion, contract negotiations and Jose Canseco. I will not talk to anyone in a fantasy league.

“Won’t you find that frustrating?” I hear you ask.

You know what I think? I think I’ll like the game a whole lot more when I come back. That’s what I think.

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