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Long before there were the San Francisco Giants of baseball's National League there were the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League. Long before there was the Giants' SBC Park, there was Seals Stadium. There was a Saturday afternoon in the summer of 1941....

Bernard and I, a pair of outrageously eager eight-year-olds, are at Seals Stadium as we almost always are when our team is playing at home. We smell peanuts roasting, hot dogs and mustard, bread baking at Kilpatrick's just beyond the stadium. We smell fetid cigar smoke and the sour stench that wafts from puddles on the stadium floor, the residue of fluffy white foam that rises gently out of the Rainier brewery across from the bakery, drifts over the stadium walls, and floats hypnotically to earth.

We stand anxiously at the low railing near the bullpen in left field. Pard Ballou rolls a ball along the inside of his forearm and pops it up into his hand with the inside of his elbow. He tosses me the ball with a lazy underhand motion, squares his heavy shoulders, turns and begins walking, slowly, deliberately, toward the field of play.

"Hey, Pard! Go get the bums!"

It's the top of the ninth inning, two outs and the Seals are behind by one run. Ballou paws at the dirt in front of the pitcher's mound, straightens, and brings his hands together against his broad chest. He twists to quickly glare, suspicious and menacing, at men standing, hands on hips, at second base and at third, SACRAMENTO in tall red letters across the front of their loose-fitting gray uniform shirts.

Ballou brings his hands down, leans back, slow and easy, and smoothly sails the white ball square into the center of the big round mitt of Joe Sprinz, a squat figure in full catcher's armor. He does it again, signalling Sprinz with a slight twist of a dark brown glove before going into his stretch.

An amplified voice fills the stadium as Ballou completes his warmup tosses: "Now batting ... Pepper Martin, third base." The stadium fills with "boooooo."

Pepper Martin! The leader of the St. Louis Cardinals' Gas House Gang himself, a major league star for so many years, but sent out this year at 37 to be player-manager of the Cardinals' farm club in Sacramento, another of that contingent of former major leaguers who've aged just enough to be pushed down to the next rung on baseball's ladder whatever their past glory and service, men in their dotage as age was reckoned in baseball.

It even happened to Tony Lazzeri, probably the best damn second baseman in the whole damn history of the New York Yankees, who hit just in front of Babe Ruth in the batting order for so many years, who drove in more than 100 runs in seven different seasons. Lazzeri, also 37, isn't even playing. That's him over there in the Seals' dugout, the little dark-skinned guy, beat out by Don Trower, who's barely in his twenties.

Pepper Martin, a barrel-chested five-feet-eight-inches of muscle, swaggers toward the plate waving three bats, the cheeks of his broad Oklahoma face swollen like those of a man with a badly abscessed tooth. He smiles arrogantly at Joe Sprinz, tosses aside two bats, unlosses a fine stream of tobacco juice and steps into the batter's box.

Ballou squints at Sprinz and nods almost imperceptibly. He glares once more at the men on base, who are now crouching, and then at Martin. Martin glares back, tightening his clear, cool, blue eyes. He shifts his head forward in an instinctive motion as slight as Ballou's had been in acknowledging Sprinz' signal for the pitch.

For a moment, Martin seems a statue, standing straight and tall with a bat cocked motionless over his right shoulder. Ballou glares at Martin once again, stands as rigidly for a split-second, then throws -- but hard this time. Very hard. Martin, too, comes suddenly to life. He swings. Hard. Very hard.

The ball is a blur shooting past the left side of the mound. No chance for the shortstop to get it -- even Nanny Fernandez isn't that quick. But, look, Don Trower's racing over from second base. He lunges, snaps up and throws the ball in one sweeping, desperate motion, rolling on the infield dirt as he spins toward first base. Martin skids down the baseline on his belly in a headlong slide. He grabs for the base. But the umpire jabs his thumb skyward. Pepper Martin is out!

"Boy, Bernard -- that's how to play second!

Trower, the SEALS on his white uniform shirt speckled with dirt, leads off the next inning, a short, determined figure with a big bat. Neither the bat nor the cheers that greet him help, however. He strikes out. But then the Sacramento pitcher walks Sprinz.

"He's gonna walk Brovia too. I know it."

Maxie Rosenbloom knows it too. He's high in the left field stands where he usually sits, an oversized, perpetually grinning elf with cauliflower ears who had been a pretty fair professional boxer before becoming one of our favorite B movie actors. He's right in the middle of a dozen men waving bills over their heads, betting loudly on what the next pitch will be, whether the batter will get a hit, who'll be ahead at the end of a particular inning, on anything and everything.

"Two bucks Brovia walks," shouts Maxie.

Maxie wins his bet. "Okay, how's about Holder? Two bucks he fans." Maxie wins again. "Fain, ha. Four bucks that bum strikes out too. Chance to get your money back. Tell ya what -- make it five."

As 19-year-old Ferris Fain strides to the plate, a big No. 7 on his back, Seals' manager Lefty O'Doul, No. 11, begins pacing in short rapid steps between the white lines that mark off the third base coaching box. He pulls a red bandana from his hip pocket and waves it at the pitcher like a battle flag. Immediately, Bernard, me and lots of other people in the stands pull out white pocket handkerchiefs and wave them in excited unison. It's as if a mammoth flight of threatening doves had swooped down into the stadium. Very distracting for a pitcher.

Ball one ... ball two. Then -- bam! -- the ball bounces hard off the centerfield fence, Sprinz rounds third base, Sprinz scores, Fain roars toward second base, Brovia rounds third, BROVIA SCORES.

"We won! WE did it!"

The crowd shuffles out happily. About 10,000 people, it looks like, most of them men who work in factories and warehouses in the mixed industrial and residential areas around Seals Stadium and in other adjacent working class districts, or maybe down on the waterfront, the same places where some of the Seals themselves work in the off-season.

Many join the overflow crowds of beer drinkers at the two bars near the stadium entrance. Bernard and I dash over to the little park across the street for a last minute game of catch before the sun goes down. Naturally we have our baseball gloves with us; we always bring our gloves to the games. Might catch a foul ball, you know -- or even a ball thrown to us by Pard Ballou, like today.

It's hard playing catch with Bernard. He misses a lot of throws and ducks his head just about every time he does catch the ball, like he's using the glove for protection.

"So," I say, "how's about climbing some trees."

But Bernard's not very good at that either. He slips out of a tree and falls hard on the ground. "Geez, you hurt?"

"I ... I think my arm's broke or something."

Bernard starts crying and I pull him to his feet. I'm not impressed with that crybaby talk; I've heard it too many times before. Bernard's my best friend, but like my uncle Bud the ballplayer says, he's got to learn to be tough. I drag him out of the park and down the block to the streetcar stop. Bernard is still crying over that little bump on the arm.

"Hey," I say, "remember when Joe Sprinz tried to catch the ball they dropped from way up in that blimp at the World's Fair, that time Bud told us about, when Joe got his face all smashed up. You remember that?"

"Sure I remember."

"Well, Joe Sprinz didn't cry."

Copyright Dick Meister