Baseball is a game for grass

April 22, 2007 -  By

It’s the kind of evening you expect following a cloudless afternoon in late July in St. Louis. Only a breeze stirs the oppressive heat radiating from the walls of buildings and rising from the pavement. Humidity from the nearby river hangs in the air like a wet curtain. Nobody’s rushing this evening as the shirt-sleeved, red-clad Cardinal fans pour into the massive concrete bowl of Busch Stadium. It’s the summer of 1993, and the city is littered by huge piles of debris deposited onto city streets from the huge, coffee-colored river weeks earlier. It’s the worst flood in decades along the banks of the Mississippi. You smell the aftermath of the floods blocks from the river. It’s not a pleasant odor.

My dad, Cliff, and I join the ant-like procession of fans into Busch and take our seats a dozen of so rows up from home plate to the third base side. In the glare of the stadium lights you see heat, or you imagine you see heat anyway, through the yellowish, hazy glow that gives the artificial turf on the field a pale unwordly green cast. Perspiration rolls down our necks, down our backs. Beads of sweat sprout on the foreheads of the fans to either side of us. The small breeze we had treasured on our walk to Busch is absent. We abandon our prime (and costly) seats and climb, up, up, up, until we real the top row of the stadium—the least expensive seats. We park ourselves in the back row and luxuriate in the evening breeze that fans us from the arched opening in the concrete wall at our backs. The climb turns out to be worthwhile, after all.

Baseball is meant to be played and enjoyed on grass, real grass. And clay, of course. I write this, partly as I remember that particular baseball experience at now-gone Busch, and not because of any animosity to artificial grass; it has its place in sport. But mostly I’m a baseball-and-grass guy because I grew up playing baseball on real grass and clay. It’s the only baseball that I know, apart from a truncated version we played as tiny grade schoolers in the alley behind our home on the east side Detroit.

It’s the baseball I played on the Blue Cap grade-school baseball team my dad coached. It’s the baseball I played in our championship high school team, the baseball that I played at my small Midwestern College. It’s the baseball I enjoy watching, either in person or on television.

Baseball played on a synthetic surface is not really baseball in my mind. It’s almost-baseball.

Why anybody would want to play baseball on a carpet has always puzzled me. It still puzzles me. Most of the action in baseball (or softball for that matter) takes place on the infield, and most of that on the dirt that surrounds home plate and the base paths.

Cool green grass gives baseball much of its special charm. The firm green cushion underfoot and the earthy-sweet smell of a freshly mowed baseball outfield connects me to my youth. It keeps alive memories of school-age friends and pickup games in neighborhood parks. Of the joy we experienced as teammates on a championship, small-town high school team,. Of lazy warm spring afternoons of practice at a small Indiana college.  But mostly it reminds me of my late father, who was, at times, also my coach, my backyard pitch-and-catch partner and later in his life my friend and fellow fan at (as it always turns out) way too few baseball games played in beautiful parks on freshly mowed grass.

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