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There are those, we know, who challenge tradition and ritual, but there are no heretics on a baseball diamond. All are true believers. I and my young friends learned that very early in life, on the baseball diamonds of San Francisco, in those days of the 1940s when baseball was still virtually the only game in that town or any other.

Of course the game was governed by the mystical number of three and its multiples -- three strikes and you're out; three outs per inning; nine players per side; nine innings per game; 60 feet, six inches from pitcher's mound to home plate; 90 feet between bases.

It was that way because there was no other possible way for it to be, the way it had been since the 1800s, when mustachioed men wearing dark suits and derby hats had laid down the rules of the game. It would be that way always.

The ball, for instance -- there was very good reason for it to weigh between 5 and 5.25 ounces, to be between 2.86 and 2.94 inches in diameter. At that size, noted Roger Angell, baseball's poet laureate, the ball "is a perfect object for a man's hand," one that "instantly suggests its purpose... to be thrown a considerable distance -- thrown hard and with precision ....If it were a fraction of an inch larger or smaller, a few centigrams heavier or lighter, the game would be utterly different.... Feel the ball, turn it over in your hand....You want to get outdoors and throw this spare and sensual object to somebody."

And that 90 feet between bases, as sportswriter Red Smith observed, "represents man's closest approach to perfection. The fastest man in the world hits a grounder to an infielder, who fields it cleanly. The hitter must lose the race. Rut if the ball is bobbled or slowed by the grass, he can win. That's perfect balance."

We followed the rules without question. And we swung three bats round and round over our heads -- Louisville Sluggers, naturally -- as we waited our turn to hit, and glared threateningly at the pitcher as we stood in the batter's box pawing at the ground.

We glanced coolly down to the third base coaching box where coaches and managers signaled to us secret orders we never dared challenge, telling us to hit, take a pitch, bunt.

In the field, we spat on the ground and into our gloves between pitches, rubbing the saliva deep into the leather of the pocket as we earnestly chattered, and chattered.

"Get him out, Mick ... humbabe ... you can do it ... YOU CAN DO IT! Easyout, easyout."

That's the way the professionals did it, and we were certain, many of us, that our play on the city's merchant-sponsored semi-professional teams was preparing us for professional careers. We would follow Joe DiMaggio and the other San Franciscans who had gone on to the fame and fortune of major league baseball.

Like apprentices in any other trade, we had to master a special vocabulary. We had to be aware we weren't just tossing the ball around the infield after the pitcher finished warming up, for instance; we were "going round the horn." If the pitcher was left handed, he was a "southpaw, of course;" men on base were "ducks on the pond;" as a second baseman or shortstop, I was part of the "keystone combination."

Unfortunately, I was a "banjo hitter" as well, one of those batters who hit too many "Texas Leaguers" and easily caught "cans of corn," and had too many "K's" -- strikeouts -- charged against him.

We never asked how those terms came to be used, for the "why" of things didn't concern young ballplayers, only the "what."

Neither did we step on the white foul line as we trotted on and off the field, although we did kick first or third base on the way by. It was things like that which caused -- or didn't cause -- all the otherwise inexplicable happenings in baseball, a game in which the element of chance was as important as the precise rules we followed. There was no other way to explain such things as why a ball hit to a particular spot in one inning would take a nice easy bounce into your waiting glove, but in the very next inning, a ball hit to the same spot would bounce up and over your glove.

That's why I ate a liverwurst sandwich on a roll -- always liverwurst, always on a roll -- and washed it down with tomato juice -- always tomato juice -- before every game. Boy, how I learned to hate liverwurst; but once I had followed such a lunch by getting four hits. It had to be the liverwurst.

Standing out on the field we learned our importance. We were part of a team, sure, but each of us stood apart, alone. Each of us had a unique role he had to fill if we were to be a team, for there were nine of us and nine different positions.

When the ball was hit, only one of us would reach it, and that player would be the center of attention; everybody would be watching, the other players, the spectators. What happened next in the game would be solely his doing. He was in control of his destiny and the destiny of those around him.

It was the same when your team was at bat, in that tense, electric moment before the ball was hit and attention shifted from batter to fielder. You stood alone at home plate waiting for the pitch, the entire team relying on what you would do. There was no faking and no hiding. You did what you did in public.

And those umpires we argued with -- the argument was just another part of the ritual of baseball. We knew a pitch was not a strike or a ball because it crossed or didn't cross home plate at a point delineated in the rule book; it was a strike or a ball because the umpire said it was a strike or a ball. A baserunner was not out because we tagged him before he reached the base; he was out because the umpire said he was out.

We learned those things, and more. But we, of course, thought we were only learning baseball.

Copyright Dick Meister