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Thursday, March 23, 2017 08:47 am

The nine-inning version

The piece about the Springfield Redbirds that appeared in the paper on March 23, 2017, was shortened by rain, so to speak. Readers interested in the complete version will find it here, as it appeared in our paper of Sept. 1, 1978. Unusually, it was not published as part of my Prejudice series but as a stand-alone piece.

The Redbirds left Springfield in 1981 for Louisville, Kentucky, after only four years, leaving Springfield with a broken contract and an empty stadium. 

Until this summer, when someone tuned in a baseball game on the tube, she left the room. "I hate baseball,” she insisted, a prejudice her baseball-loving friends ascribed to an ignorance that was as pitiable as it was stubborn. Given her predilections, it was no surprise that the news last October of Springfield landing a Triple A baseball club excited in her only indifference. The anticipatory talk among local fans about what kind of team Ray Smith might bring to town, the spring ritual by which the baseball fan repopulates his dreams, were as involving to her as township election returns -- important to some people, sure, but of no interest to her.

That first outing to the north side, then, was not to watch baseball so much as to go to a baseball game. It was midway into what looked like a disastrous season both on the field and at the gate, an introduction fraught with ill omens. She had much to learn. That first game, for example, she wanted to know why every time a man hit the ball it was not a hit, or why a man could go to bat and leave having never been there, officially at any rate.

Baseball surrenders its secrets reluctantly, but gradually confusion gave way to curiosity. Soon she was not asking what was going on as often as she asked why. She learned that a good pitcher doesn't throw exactly the same way, twice in a row, that a ball thrown on a count of 2 and 0 does not signify the same thing as a ball thrown at 1 and 2, that it sometimes makes sense to put a man on base deliberately, that the game, like all of the best games, makes sense only in its own terms.

By May players were shuffling in and out of Springfield like conventioneers, partly because the parent Cardinals were ailing and in constant need of transfusion. The moves put budding fan loyalties to the test -- one could never be sure that the pitcher you liked so much on Wednesday would be back on Monday -- but the moves paid off on the field. Beginning in mid-June the club's lineup had assumed some quasi-permanent shape, and the team was winning four games for every three it lost.

As her grasp of the rules grew surer, the other aspects of the game became clearer. The esthetic satisfaction of the swelling double arc of a long curving fly sailing over the fence. The ballet of a double play choreographed by the shortstop, second and first basemen to the tune of a hard grounder. The tactical improvisations of a pitcher. The comedy of errors. She began to find it not quite so dull.

But the human aspects of baseball exerted the strongest pull against her crumbling prejudices. Esthetics, after all, enhance the sport, but it is emotion that ties one to it. Players who never stayed around long enough to become more than numbers were replaced by players who in time acquired names and faces and, eventually, personalities.

In July she sampled the rewards of attending the two-way traffic through a minor league town. On a Saturday night she had watched Aurelio Lopez (known affectionately among some fans as Taco Gringo) pitch two strong innings in relief against Wichita. It was her first look at a major league fastballer; he's good, she was told. Two nights later Lopez was called up by the Cards, and that night could be seen in St. Louis against the then-first place Giants, right there on national TV. To the 16,651 paid in Busch Stadium and the millions more at home who were watching Lopez throw for the first time he was an unknown quantity. Not to our fan. "That's our Aurelio," she announced when he hummed one by Jack Clark. Our Aurelio? One lesson that a fan in this circumstance is granted the right to gloat a little, she'd learned without prompting. The rest of the country, she knew, had only on that day been allowed in on a secret that up to then only she and a few others shared.

And, although many baseball fanatics love to pretend otherwise, the pleasures of the ballpark don't all lie in the elevated contemplation of Sport. Summer evenings have charms of their own that even a no-hitter cannot overshadow, and for those whose tastes run in that direction there are' also organ music, cheerleaders, chilli dogs and beer. There is even sex, as is revealed by the appreciative stares garnered by such players as Dane Iorg, whose virtues, according to several female fans, extended beyond his economical and (at .378) highly productive swing.

By mid-August the transformation was nearly complete. It was still unclear whether she was a baseball fan or a Redbird fan, but the effects were largely indistinguishable. She found herself, against all her instincts, turning to the sports pages on the day after a game. By the last home stand she was allowing that she was a little sad that the season was nearing a close, and was told that that, too, was part of the game and that end-of-season blues provides its own curative in speculation about next year's prospects.

The last time she watched the Redbirds was at their last home game against Iowa. Behind her were a trio of teenaged boys. "They got rid of their good catcher," one said, which indeed they had, having traded John Tamargo to the Giants earlier in the year. But that was weeks ago, another team, another season almost. The big new kid named Kennedy who replaced Tamargo was being touted as something really worth watching. When Kennedy -- who was batting .308 with ten homers and forty RBIs in only fifty-eight games -- first came to bat the kid said, "This guy doesn't look very good."

Our fan rolled her eyes upward in exasperation. "Rookies," she muttered, then bent back down to her scorecard.




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