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On baseball


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Might October remain the grandest month of the year even if there were no baseball games of huge meaning? Long, autumnal, shadows would still reveal lush harvests in reds, and greens and yellows and the music from the neighborhood gridiron would blend just as sweetly with the lyrical season's balmy breezes. But it's the baseball that trumps it; adorns fall like the last rose of summer.

There was a fine whiff of the magic of all that in the opening round of this season's festival of baseball playoffs. It was dandy stuff.

In just a handful of gorgeous, sunny, days you had a no-hitter. Three managers being heaved by the umps. A rash of controversial calls and non-calls. The Rays and Rangers pounding on one another like Louis and Conn. A kid who was a wayward discard a month ago coming off the back bench to slay Giants with a tenth inning homer. And then there were the Yankees suddenly flicking a switch and reverting to their atavistic monster persona while tearing the heart out of the upper Midwest. Just like that. Bingo!

It doesn't get any better than Baseball in autumn. Somebody ought to write a song about it and how we remain connected to all the Octobers of the past and how the music comes back from an old familiar score to haunt us again and again. Like Scott Fitzgerald said, we are all "boats against the current borne back ceaselessly into the past." And why not? It's such a nice friendly and safe place to be.

It was precisely 50 autumns ago as yet another Red Sox season was ending on a down note that we had one of those moments the poets won't ever let us forget. Have you ever wondered about the marvelous happenstance that brought John Updike to Fenway Park at the end of the 1960 season to cover the last game Ted Williams would play there? Updike, a promising young man of letters with a passion for classical lore, was on assignment for The New Yorker, which even then rarely deigned to compete for sporting scraps with the The Sporting News.

But the young Updike had a thing about Williams dating back to his Harvard days when, he confessed, he wasted stray afternoons that he should have spent pounding the steps of Widener sitting in Fenway's bleachers exulting in the fascinating if ultimately fruitless melodrama of Williams, in the role of Jason, striving to redeem the antics of the aimless Argonauts with whom the Gods had callously cast him. The brilliance of the metaphor and its roots in antiquity had only occurred to Mr. Updike and were, of course, completely lost on the fabled "Knights of the Keyboard", Ted's nearest and dearest pals from the local media, who were also there.

The result was that Updike alone among the some 17,000 lost souls on hand for the hallowed occasion was able to capture the transcendental meaning of Ted's parting shot off an Orioles' batting practice pitcher named Jack Fisher in an otherwise meaningless game approaching the end of a sorrowful season. Updike's essay -- wonderfully titled, "Hub Fans bid Kid Adieu" -- has been called the finest sports story ever written; this from a fellow who had never covered a sporting event before and would -- to the best of my knowledge -- never stoop to cover another one again. One presumes he was just trying to show us how easy it is.

Far more important is the fact that he immortalized Williams in the process. Not that Ted's stature as a certified demigod of the sporting culture wasn't already assured with his immensely colorful bravura guaranteeing all that would only grow as he aged. But Updike took it a long step further giving Ted intellectual approval and ushering him to the highest reaches of myth to the point where it became hard to distinguish between the flesh and blood Ted and the man of myth Ted.

We should be thankful to the equally brilliant Leigh Montville who came along about a half century after Updike had done his thing and sorted out much of the confusion. For my money, Montville's work is the finest sports biography ever written. Old Teddy Ballgame had a way of inspiring greatness; still more affirmation of his legend, one supposes.

Fifty years ago! Seems like yesterday. And there's another such precious anniversary at hand. It was on the 13th of October, 1960, that the Pirates' Bill Mazeroski smote the homer that leveled the mighty Yankees, giving them the most notable come-uppance of their entire existence and ending the wildest, most entertaining World Series in the history of that glorious event.

There have been better ballgames, certainly better played ones, but never one that packed more excitement into nine hellacious innings of mad scrambling. If I can't remember where I put my car keys, I can vividly recall every twist and turn of that raucous October afternoon. At Holy Cross, where I was then a senior, they had one television set with about a 12 inch screen in a lounge next to the P.O. downstairs from the dining hall. There were maybe 50 of us crammed around the thing in the early innings but by the eighth when all hell unleashed there must have been near a thousand undergrads stretched out to the quadrangle in the center of campus. In those days, baseball was something more than just baseball.

Epic endings have to be arranged by curious fate. Maz would never have had his moment had not Bill Virdon's certain double play grounder taken a ridiculously bad hop striking Tony Kubek in the throat and sending the noble Yankee shortstop to the hospital. In the chaos that followed, Casey Stengel, nearing his dotage, grossly over-reacted and lifted Bobby Shantz, whom the Bucs' couldn't touch. It all led to a titanic 3-run homer by Hal Smith, a thoroughly obscure back-up catcher who would promptly lapse back into obscurity. Only in Baseball.

Smith's blow killed the Yankees but it was the homer by Maz to his ever-lasting glory that won it and you can still see that ball arching over the ivy draped left field wall at Forbes Field with Yogi Berra extending his arms in anguish, like poor Lear baying at the tides, and then the kids were streaming onto the field seeking to engulf Maz before he reached the plate. You'd never seen that before. The roar that shook old Kimball Hall shook traffic in downtown Worcester and there was the wild suggestion that we should all hit the highway and head for the big party about to engulf Pittsburgh for at least a week. But it was just loud undergrad talk. That was as far as things went in 1960.

The games connect the ages and bond us forever with precious times and places and too many long departed but well remembered.

Dave Anderson of the Times wrote a lovely piece the other day on yet another sweet anniversary at hand. Recall, it was 55 Octobers ago that the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers finally had their moment of redemption; finally prevailed over their ancient adversaries who were, or course, the one and same Yankees. Anderson shares an anecdote from Carl Erskine, the fine gentleman who pitched with such grace for those Dodgers, about how when it was over the entire Dodger squad with its entourage returned to Brooklyn from Yankee Stadium on buses and as they slowly rolled through the borough they were serenaded, block after block after block.

"Serenaded!" Think about that. Think about how tender and moving that must have been. Think of how a simple game touched so many hearts. Maybe you had to have been from Brooklyn and been there that magical night to fully appreciate it and I was not. But it isn't hard to imagine, eh.

Baseball in October! The possibilities are always infinite. Soon somewhere the rarefied magic will alight again and they'll still be talking about it a half century hence. And maybe again the Yankees will be in the middle of it. That would come as no surprise to this observer.

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