Anyone who dines regularly during spring training at the Pink Pony, that baseball hangout in Scottsdale, Ariz., has seen it happen on dozens of occasions. Along about closing time, some self-appointed expert wishing to illustrate a technical point will disengage himself from a booth or bars tool and assume a batting stance in the middle of the floor. "Now, here's the way the Splinter used to do it...hands back like this...then the little hip cock..." And—whoosh!—imaginary bat conks invisible ball into mind's-eye bleachers.
So I was not at all surprised one convivial March evening to see two gentlemen of my recent acquaintance step onto the floor to demonstrate contending theories.
"Now, look, Graham," the taller of the two began, digging in at the barroom batter's box. "If McGwire really swung the bat the way you say he does, uppercutting the ball..."—whoosh!—"he'd never make any contact at all. You have to have a level swing. Just like in cricket."
"Ah, but my dear Whitey," said the smaller man, "I distinctly saw Mark dip his right shoulder, like this, and then swing with this clear upward thrust..."—whoosh! "It seemed an obvious attempt on his part to get more loft onto the ball."
"Well, I'll tell you what, Graham, I'll watch for it tomorrow. Maybe you've got a point there. Maybe." The two resumed their seats and continued the discussion until there was scarcely anyone left in the joint but hired hands.
A familiar scene, certainly, but with a difference. The taller man, the level-swing advocate, was Richard (Whitey) De-Hart, a scout for the Montreal Expos. The shorter man, the Mark McGwire-uppercut theorist, was Graham Burton, who happens to be the British consul general in San Francisco. A diplomat in Her Majesty's service taking practice swings in a baseball bar?
As it turns out, Burton, on his various tours of duty in this country, has become an ardent baseball fan and a devoted follower of the Oakland Athletics, with whom he suffered mightily during last year's World Series. And Burton cares enough about the A's first baseman to fret over a possible flaw he was certain he had detected in the young slugger's swing. It is not every day one sees a proper English gentleman wearing a green-and-gold baseball cap. But there, by heaven, he was, taking his cuts with the rest of the experts down at the Pony.
This little charade was enough to get me thinking about our so-called national pastime. Can it be that in a world grown increasingly smaller, baseball is not such an intrinsically American game as we've always thought? If its charms can reach out to a man weaned on cricket—indeed, thoroughly overcome him—then there's no telling where the game's appeal might end.
The truth is, we in this country have remained entirely too provincial about baseball. After all, the game is now played in Asia, Europe, Australia and certainly in Central and South America. Even the Soviets are firing the old pill around the infield. Japanese and Cubans speak as knowledgeably about the game as anyone you'll find in the Pink Pony, and they don't play it too badly, either. Baseball will be an official Olympic sport beginning in 1992. And yet there are still a few people in Brooklyn who think the game went to hell when it moved to the West Coast.
I know that there was a time in my life when baseball seemed to me to be the property of an elite corps, to which only I and those few others who could recite the batting orders of all 16 major league teams were allowed to belong. We regarded with stinging contempt the ignoramuses who could not identify without hesitation the members of the Hundred Thousand Dollar Infield or rattle off the Clipper's rookie year statistics. Girls were naturally excluded from our club and so were schoolteachers, moms and even some dads. We made of the game a tiny province.