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Baseball season again. That smell again. It overwhelms me -- the incredibly fresh smell of newly cut grass and stale earthy odor of freshly watered basepaths, the very essence of baseball.

I'm up on the edge of some infield, somewhere, crouching. I'm up on my toes, leaning forward anxiously and peering intently at a batter, my stubby-fingered fielder's glove skimming the dirt. Bits of damp grass cling to the paper-thin kangaroo leather of my black spiked shoes and those of my teammates. Our uniforms hang on us in folds, like baggy woolen sacks.

Is it 1942? 1945? 1950?

Is it a ballpark in San Francisco? We look like human billboards with that splashy lettering all over the front of our uniform shirts. What's that it says? Leslie Salt, Bucher Asbestos, Ghiselli Meats, Farallon Cleaners? Molkenbuhr Jewelers? Johnnies Billiards?

It could be any one of the two dozen or so neighborhood parks in the city that I so clearly recall, parks that swarmed year-round with players -- young kids, teenagers, twenty-year-olds, middleaged men. Baseball was the ladder the younger players hoped to climb to fame and fortune, the chief form of recreation for all.

Sunday was the big day. Three games on each of the parks' diamonds, at ten in the morning, at noon and two o'clock, between the city's hundreds of merchant-sponsored teams, well-sprinkled with professionals during the winter.

But the field I recall could be in Boonville, California. Or in Coquille, Oregon.
Or Medicine Hat, Alberta. Or in any of the other towns where we also once played -- in tumble-down parks, you'd probably call them, though we hardly noticed.

Mingled with the moist smell of the grass and the dirt and the sourness of sweat-soaked flannel uniforms is the sweet and sour of freshly cut lumber. It wafts from the mills where summertime ballplayers from the city earned their keep when not racing across lumpy, sun-blistered fields while entire towns watched, cheered and jeered.

I mean places like Boonville, a town of 700 people 120 miles north of San Francisco, where I played a half-century ago, a 17-year-old shortstop not yet out of high school in San Francisco certain he was making the first stop on the road to major league stardom.

The Boonville fans -- farmers, sheepherders, lumbermen and their families -- barreled into town at noontime on Saturdays and Sundays, straight down the highway that doubled as Main Street, climbed out of dented and dusty pickups and long fish-tailed sedans and hurried into the Boonville Lodge. They jostled good-naturedly as they yelled out their orders: Beer and chicken-fried steak, beer and hamburger steak, beer and fried chicken or, for those feeling flush, beer and the house special, T-bone steak.

Soon the laughing, noisy crowd, grasping bottles of beer and washtubs filled with ice and more beer, crossed the highway and jounced down a dirt road on the other side to a field a few hundred yards away. The heat rose in waves; you could see it through the thick clouds of dust kicked up by the infielders, warming up as the crowd clambered up into the bleachers, rattling the seats formed from sagging wooden planks, old, dry and smelling of resin.

The crowd of two, three-hundred people yelled out advice and encouragement full blast through the afternoon, and fans came down under the bleachers between innings to offer icy, dripping bottles of beer that we downed in quick, gasping gulps.

It didn't end with the games. We walked, players and fans, the sweat-soaked lot of us, across the highway afterward, replaying the games as we made our way to the lodge, there to continue our talk, inside and in boisterous groups that spilled out onto the sidewalk. More beer, and the raucous, endlessly blasting jukebox sound of country boys singing country songs.

That was Boonville on just about any weekend in the summer of 1950. That could have been just about any small town anywhere.

But sometimes when I remember baseball, I'm not playing at all. I'm in Seals Stadium in San Francisco, and younger. It's a Saturday afternoon in the summer of 1941.

We hear the haunting echo of bat against ball that fills the virtually empty stadium during pre-game practice, the shuffle of feet as the crowd begins filing in. We hear the thump of balls in gloves as the players warm up, performing one of the most effortlessly graceful of human activities, a simple game of catch between skilled ballplayers. We hear the sing-song chatter of the players.

Suddenly, the umpire-in-chief bellows, "Play ball!" The crowd cheers, and the San Francisco Seals stream out of the home team dugout just behind the square white pillow of third base, figures in loosely-fitting uniforms of white daubed with black and orange. They move with arrogant grace onto the emerald green of the outfield and rich deep brown of the infield. We leap up to join in a fresh round of cheers.

Half-stumbling with excitement, we bound down flights of concrete steps
between rows of dark green wooden seats set apart by ornate arms of cast-iron. We reach over the low railing in left field and into the San Francisco Seals' bullpen to pluck at the pinstriped sleeve of a hero's garment.

It's Pard Ballou, the great relief pitcher. He's the best, we're sure, in the whole Pacific Coast League -- a friendly, fat-faced man who's always there, and always, the grownups tell us, just a little "under the influence." Well, his breath does smell kind of bad sometimes -- but, boy, can Old Pard pitch.

"Hi ya, kids," says Pard, squinting up through the bright sunlight as he turns sideways on the bullpen bench. "How ya today?" He winks, and grins in a funny, lopsided way. "Think we can beat the bums?"

Seals Stadium was a very special place, but so was the little ballpark in Boonville and the neighborhood parks of San Francisco. So are the parks and stadiums of today, whatever their size and wherever they are. Jim Lefebvre, who played long and well for the Los Angeles Dodgers, likens them to temples.

Temples? Well, it may be only a game, but think about it.

A baseball park is a place of myth, isn't it, of tradition, and veneration and ritual and order, of wisdom being passed from generation to generation, from elder to younger.

A temple also is a place in which to pay reverence to beauty, and what's more beautiful than the graceful motion and timing of baseball, its unique rhythm, the exquisite ebb and flow of action and anticipation, action and thought. That's right, exquisite, and you know it, unless you've been watching exclusively on TV, with its commercials, instant replays and non-stop announcers.

A ballpark is a place, too, where you demonstrate faith. Everyone who enters a ballpark believes it's always possible to "beat the bums," that it isn't over until the very last out of the very last inning, that the innings, the game can go on for as long as the players perform well.

The commandments in the rule book promise that. There are no clocks measuring off quarters and halves, no point during a game when there is not
enough time left to win, no rule saying how long it should take to make three outs and complete an inning, or how long it should take to win or lose a game.

Yes, life outside the temple may not always offer quite so much hope. But if it did, who'd need religion? Who'd need baseball?

Copyright Dick Meister