Hang on, and play ball! 

Baseball in an age of anxiety

Roger Angell, the great New Yorker writer, describes how sometimes baseball can offer us moments of pleasure that linger, or even stretch out inside us, if we let them. This doesn't happen if we force the issue -- or ladle out the superlatives promiscuously. But for many among us who, throughout our lives, have found enjoyment in camping out in the bleachers with a beer or two, or puttering around the apartment as a game unfolds on radio or TV, the phenomenon is real. We know that the sense of wonder -- or of plain old fun -- that is part of being a fan has a way of welling up and making other concerns recede. Speaking as one American who fought back tears on the night of September 11, I have never been happier for that possibility than I am at the outset of this year's baseball playoffs.

I know, I know -- there's a lot to worry about. Bombs may still be falling on Afghanistan when young Mark Mulder, the Oakland A's left-hander, takes the mound at Yankee Stadium for Game 1. But based as I am in Europe, where Tony Blair, Gerhard Schroeder, and Jacques Chirac have all been urging that US military retaliation be "targeted," I am going to insist on optimism. Maybe the comforting narrative of balls and strikes, strikeouts and home runs, can offer a respite from the sickening chain of events set in motion by those planes crashing into those skyscrapers, and everything that has tumbled to the ground since. If a national and international catastrophe like the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon does not give us license to cherish what gives us pleasure and balm, then what does?

It may have to do with watching from my apartment in East Berlin, but I do not think I have ever felt more alone than I did during the infinity of hours crammed into the day we call September 11. I am sure a lot of people had that feeling. Exes who had sworn each other off for good somehow ended up back together, and family ties suddenly seemed more important. That was why it was so appropriate that in the days that followed, we took a break from sports. There was no time for it. No room for it.

But in the weeks that have followed the crashes, as we work to reconstruct our lives, it's worth remembering that sports have always offered a bridge, a means for all sorts of people to connect. Out there, jostling and absorbing random conversations, we can share in a group excitement -- the way Oakland and the East Bay can right now in this year's Oakland A's team -- that's about as unalloyed a pleasure as the sports world presents.

This year's baseball playoffs offer a rich palette of reminders that baseball, like all sports, is a collection of stories, the stories we see unfolding before our eyes, and also the larger stories we can't see but know are there. The story of this year's A's team is, more than anything, the story of Jason Giambi developing into a front-line baseball star and clutch performer. Giambi is a force of nature, but he would never be where he is right now without his good luck in winding up with a first-rate mentor. That mentor was the man who used to hold the single-season home-run record, until last week, and I watched firsthand as the relationship between Giambi and Mark McGwire unfolded. This was back when it was my job to follow the A's all over North America and write about it for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Sometimes the most important developments in sports really are just as simple -- even innocent -- as we wanted them to be when we were younger. At least that's how it seemed one night in 1995 when a few big-league ballplayers gathered at a Chicago bar. The bar was the Lodge, a saloon-style watering hole with peanut shells on the scuffed-up wood floor, cheap drinks, and a cramped back room called "the bullpen" where just about anything could happen, and has.

The Lodge is famous in baseball. It stays open until four or five in the morning, and for years both players and sportswriters have been coming there. It's the only bar in the country where the two groups, natural antagonists, regularly drink and talk together. That's why I was there with some friends one breezy, warm early-summer night when McGwire, longtime sidekick Mike Gallego, and a very young Jason Giambi took a table near us.

McGwire was going through a bad stretch of years. He kept getting hurt and his manager, Tony La Russa, had seemed to question his manliness. Baseball wasn't fun for him anymore. He knew he had a gift for driving the ball deep. He knew with a little luck, he could get it together and earn a spot in the Hall of Fame. But at the moment that goal seemed mockingly remote. Making it through a single season without having his feet or his back give out on him seemed like a more immediate challenge.

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