Tuesday, April 04, 2006

George Vecsey: Opening Day Never Grows Old

The New York Times
Published: April 2, 2006

OPENING day is still wonderful, even though baseball degrades it by staging it at night sometimes, for the benefit of the masters from television. Opening day belongs in the daylight, the way it will be tomorrow at Shea Stadium.

A character in "The Southpaw" by Mark Harris describes opening day in 1948 with passion that would be equally appropriate today.

As the temperature warmed up in recent days, there was no better way to prepare for the season than to reread Mark Harris's "The Southpaw," one of the finest sports books I know. The 1953 novel reminds me why so many Americans love baseball, because of the ritual of rebirth right around the first of April:

"Then the band played 'East Side, West Side' in honor of the mayor of New York, who come down and took a seat in the box behind first. There was a lot of cheering, and some booing as well, and the mayor waved his hand and pretended he did not hear the booing."

This is opening day in 1948, as described by a 17-year-old left-hander, Henry Wiggen, who dreams of pitching in the major leagues one day. For the moment, he is a brash kid from upstate New York, gawking at the monumental stadium in the Bronx.

"There was an announcement by the loudspeaker, 'Ladies and gentlemen, our national anthem,' and the band struck the tune and some lady that I could not see begun to sing, and a mighty powerful pair of lungs she had. It is really beautiful, for as the last words die away, a roar goes up from the people, and for a minute there is no sound but the echo of the singing, and no movement or motion except maybe a bird or the flags waving or the drummer on his drums, and then the music dies and the people spring to life and the chief umpire calls loud and long, 'Puh-lay ball! And the game is on."

No matter how grotesquely the Bluto Generation has bulked up on flaxseed oil, no matter how much money the players are paid, baseball seems pretty much the same as it was in 1948 when Wiggen and his dad (a former minor league pitcher) witnessed the opener.

"It's still what kids go through, throwing a ball around," said Harris, now 83 and living in Goleta, Calif., with his wife of 60 years, Josephine, the delightful model for Wiggen's girlfriend. Harris now lives the game through his children and grandchildren. "It's still wonderful."

By the 1952 opener, Wiggen is a punk rookie with the New York Mammoths, shocked to discover cork-tip cigarette butts outside his hotel-room door, a sign that a coach sat guard all night to make sure Wiggen did not go carousing, a tipoff that he is pitching the opener.

Wiggen will have a magnificent rookie season, enchanting some people and infuriating others. He remains as refreshing as opening day itself, a stand-in for all the captivating rookies who make fans wonder, how did we ever get along without Dontrelle Willis (or David Wright or Robinson Cano)?

Harris had his agendas. Wiggen is an independent soul who relishes that his black roommate (a decade or more ahead of the reality of black-white roomies) is not merely fast but also a student of how to run the bases and take somebody's job. Like the Mets' Carlos Delgado, who has sometimes ducked the playing of "God Bless America" in the seventh inning, there is a highly political catcher who hides in the runway during the national anthem. And there is a jaded old pitching ace who gives the rookie a pill that gets him through a big game. Plus ├ža change ...

"Essentially, the players are interested in their rewards," Harris said in a telephone interview the other day, not sounding put off by the eternal pragmatism of the athlete. Asked about the generation of apparent steroid usage, Harris did not sound shocked. After all, in his novel, he has Wiggen throw an illegal spitball to get a vital out, and then justify it to his idealistic girlfriend:

" 'Things are tight,' I said. 'Terrible tight. Every pitch is cash, Holly. Big cash. Not only my cash, but the cash of all the boys. It is a brick house for Coker Roguski's folks and a new start in life for Hams Carroll's little girl. This is for keeps. This ain't playground baseball.' "

Barry Bonds could not have said it any better.

Harris, who wrote four Wiggen novels, is perhaps best known for the second, "Bang the Drum Slowly," which was made into a movie. That book has one of the loveliest last lines in American literature, a regret from Wiggen for the way the players made fun of a slow-witted and now dead teammate: "From here on in, I rag nobody." We could all use that on our coat of arms.

In "The Southpaw," reissued in 2003 by the University of Nebraska Press, Harris is dealing with the eternal goofiness of humanity. He has the servile road secretary, the owner's hard-drinking daughter, the blustering manager, the selfish players, the venal sportswriters. Sounds about right.

Harris loves the game itself, and he never loses sight of its value to America. In the words of an aimless socialite Wiggen meets at a party on Beacon Hill in Boston: "I wish I was a ballplayer, for a ballplayer is a man that lives by what he does in life."

The ballplayer lives by what he does, starting on opening day. It's been a long and lonely winter. Puh-lay ball! indeed.

E-mail: geovec@nytimes.com

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