At the conclusion of every baseball storm—be it a strike or a rash of drug busts or the latest contract hassle—players and executives fall back on that old bromide: "All that really matters is what goes on between the white lines."
Well, 1983 wasn't an exceptional year between the white lines. The most memorable moment on the field concerned pine tar—specifically whether too much of it on the bat of the Royals' George Brett was sufficient cause for disallowing a game-winning home run he'd hit against the Yankees. The incident generated one of the liveliest and most interesting debates in the history of the sport. The controversy, which resulted in Brett's homer being allowed to stand, was particularly well suited to baseball, which is as much a game of talk as action. But pine tar aside, it was what happened outside the white lines that gave '83 its special flavor.
JAN. 23—The baseball season doesn't begin with the first pitch of spring training or even the first pitch of Opening Day. It begins with the annual New York Baseball Writers dinner, the first big baseball event of the year. It's a watershed in which the season past is celebrated and the season future anticipated.
For eating or entertainment, the dinner isn't much. Furthermore, it is militantly, even offensively, all-male; the word stag fairly leaps out of the invitation. So why do I attend a dinner run by such antediluvian people? Because in a strange way, they're my heroes. These cigar-chomping traditionalists represent some of the game's best instincts. There's nothing about baseball they've ever wanted to alter. Oh, sure, some things, such as segregation and low salaries, cried out for change. But baseball rules and traditions were by and large perfect as they stood in, say, 1950. In one of the game's greatest ironies, the "progressives" gave us the DH, artificial turf, indoor stadiums, expansion and most everything else that over the past two decades or so has dulled the spectacle.
FEB. 28—I have two conflicting views of spring training. The first is the traditional one—that the baseball spring is a time of rebirth and renewal. The weather is warm, the atmosphere is informal, the mood is upbeat. Every team is improved, every rookie is a phenom. In the outfield, players, their caps purposely askew, throw balls between their legs. Other players—and coaches and managers—lean over the railing and strike up conversations with fans. The scene should be frozen forever.
But I also think about players who may be coming to spring training for the last time. Age and injury have dimmed their skills. For them, it's a time of desperation, not celebration.
MARCH 21—The atmosphere at a spring training game is quite unlike that at a regular-season game. No one really cares about the result, because the starters are replaced by minor-leaguers after a few innings. The movement of people in the stands is every bit as fluid. Fans drift in, drift out, show up during the sixth inning. At Al Lang Stadium in St. Petersburg there's a celebrated hot dog vendor. When he makes his grand entrance in the third inning, fans applaud, and surprised players turn around to see what's going on. "World's worst hot dogs!" the old fellow cries out. Later he breaks into a raucous tenor and sings He's Got the Whole World in His Hands.
I watched today's game with Roger Angell, the distinguished fiction editor and baseball writer for The New Yorker. Roger's a sensitive and charming fellow, but he couldn't restrain himself the first time Dave Kingman, the wasted talent for the Mets, stepped to the plate. Roger stuck out his tongue, blew on it and gave Kingman the raspberry: "Btfstpk!"
"Roger!" said his wife, Carol.