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Baseball Fever

Play catch. Have a catch. Doesn't matter what you call it, the game was on full display last Thursday in Iowa.

I'm not sure just when humans began throwing a sphere back and forth in a friendly manner. Maybe a rounded rock was the first missile, but for our purposes we're talking about two people, each wearing a glove, and a ball covered in cowhide secured by 108 stitches.

Playing catch, the linchpin for W.P. Kinsella's book Shoeless Joe, which, as we all know, morphed into the film Field of Dreams, deserves more than a shallow perusal.

It is an exercise in cooperation. Whether it's Tim Anderson and Yoan Moncada warming up before a major league championship game or a parent casually playing toss with a son or daughter in the backyard or local park, the objective involves throwing the ball as accurately as possible. We're not always successful, and that's alright. It's the thought that counts.

Making one's partner leap for the ball, block an errant throw, or chase after a heave that is far left or right is antithetical to the game. We try to be helpful by aiming for the center of our mate's body, preferably above the waist. How many of us have uttered "I'm sorry" when making a poor throw? We're remorseful when that happens. If it's a grandfather, as it is in my case, playing with a son or grandchild who heaves one over my head, he even yells, "Don't worry, I'll get it."

I haven't reached the point thus far when I can't jog after the ball, but the sentiment is not lost on me. It feels good.

At the close of Field of Dreams when Kevin Costner plays catch with his dad's ghost under the arc lights of Iowa, they both display accuracy and fine form. A connection, missing from years earlier, is finally made. All by playing catch.

In addition, none of this can be enacted with anything but a baseball. Sure, folks play catch with a football, but that oval is so much more difficult to control. A child goes out for a pass, but how many moms or dads, aside from Tom Brady, can hit the kid in mid-stride? Adults and kids surely can connect shooting baskets, but that requires a court and a net, as well as taking a risk that a one-on-one struggle ensues where there's a winner and loser.

But this time-tested experience of tossing a baseball back and forth, interspersed with conversation about anything that comes to mind, has endured. The exercise can take place in big cities and little towns, on grass or dirt, a sidewalk, or in the middle of the street if it's not so busy.

Baseball jargon has seeped into just about every facet of our lives, so if we implore two sides of an issue to "play ball" with one another, perhaps we need to simply start with a game of catch. Just think if Nancy Pelosi - chances are good she throws left-handed - were to engage Kevin McCarthy - definitely a righty, maybe even a sidearm right-hander - in a friendly game of catch.

Of course, this is where all this business of having the White Sox meet the Yankees last week began. I admit to skepticism that built up ever since the scheme was hatched by Major League Baseball. I love the movie; seen it numerous times often in the morning's wee hours while channel surfing. It never gets old. Why not just leave it at that? Why blemish the landscape with another ballpark, far bigger than Ray Kinsella's, altering the pristine nature of what had been built more than 30 years ago?

Like eliminating four pitches for an intentional walk, having the DH in one league but not the other, putting a runner on second to start an extra inning, and trying futilely to speed up the game - the average time this season is three hours, eight minutes, the longest ever - I figured the suits would screw this one up as well. Face value of tickets began around $400 and by game time Stubhub listed some for thousands. This would not be an event for the masses.

Of course, the game was more about the 5.9 million watching on television - the largest audience for a regular season game since 2005 - than the 8,000 folks in the stands. One-in-four Chicago households watching television Thursday evening were tuned into the game. The White Sox have become the toast of the town.

I was waiting for the bass baritone voice of James Earl Jones to declare, "If you televise, Mr. Manfred, people will watch. They will most definitely watch."

The optics were enticing and consuming. While dozens of wildfires were raging in the West with floods affecting property and lives throughout the nation, the scene in Iowa was peaceful, verdant and lush. Replacing signage, gigantic video boards, and seats at big league parks were images of corn, which, like playing catch, we often take for granted. Whoever thought of having see-through outfield fencing should get a raise. I've never seen corn so green. It was, well, as "high as an elephant's eye." Drought? Not in Iowa.

The hot air balloon that floated over those fields mid-game added to the panorama. Possibly that was staged, but the breath-taking sunset surely wasn't.

When Kevin Costner emerged from the cornfield to introduce the game followed by the Sox and Yankees, all cynicism melted away. The fact that players of all colors from many places other than the United States added to the celebration of the game.

More than three hours later when Anderson's home run dropped into the green stalks behind the right field fence, one had to marvel at how fortunate we all were to see such a contest. What if the Sox and Yankees put on a show of walks, strikeouts and an occasional home run - rather than the eight that were hit in the game - that have become all too familiar in today's game? If the idea was to attract more fans to the game, it worked.

Whether the non-fans who simply were curious to investigate the hype will become more interested in the game remains to be seen. I tend to doubt their conversion.

For us Sox fans, we learned that this was the 15th time in history that our team beat the Yankees on a walk-off home run. That was lovely news although most of my memories were just the opposite, and justifiably so. The New Yorkers have walked off the Sox 22 times, including three occasions in the 1950s, twice courtesy of Mickey Mantle and once by Yogi Berra. Babe Ruth was the first to do it. In fact, he doomed the Sox four times. But, again, we found solace and delight knowing that Shoeless Joe was the first White Sox to end a game against the Yankees with a home run.

Were there touches that could have enhanced Thursday night? The movie was equally about family as it was about fathers and sons. And Amy Madigan, a Chicagoan by birth, played Annie Kinsella, Ray's wife. Where was she last week? The connection should have been obvious.

I also was a bit confused by the traditional flyover at the end of the national anthem. Those looked like jets but not the Blue Angels. What were they? Regardless, a quartet of crop dusters would have been most appropriate as long as they would not have dumped a dose of pesticides on the land.

None of us will soon forget Thursday's game. Even the two losses to the Yankees over the weekend didn't diminish the exhilaration and euphoria of the game played in Iowa. Watching the game with my wife and older son, rooting hard for the Sox, was exactly what we needed to do. When it was all over, darkness had fallen so a game of catch wasn't in the cards.

But watching Field of Dreams for the umpteenth time was the next best option. And we took it.

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Former Bill Veeck bar buddy Roger Wallenstein is our White Sox correspondent. He welcomes your comments.

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1. From Barbara Finn, former Chicagoan living in Arroyo Grande, California:

This one touched me deeply . . . playing catch. We've all done it to a greater or lesser extent.

Having an older brother and male cousins who played and excelled in junior and high school baseball I, rather a tomboy, considered throwing a baseball like a guy the ultimate achievement.

My Uncle Butch inspired his sons to play baseball. He was the catcher on a Japanese team here on the central coast before WWII spoiled things. But the Japanese internees pursued their love of baseball in the camps. To see old photos of the diamonds that were created in the desert landscape and the fans that cheered them on one would think it was a typical baseball scene except for the guard towers.

Now, my cousin, Raymond, who lamented that three of his grandsons have taken up roller hockey instead of baseball, has a granddaughter who at age 12 is literally knocking it out of the park.

Jayden, whose dad, Michael, coaches her team, has gone to softball camps in Oklahoma and Oregon and more recently to one at UCLA. So, the tradition of playing ball continues in the Tamura family.

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Posted on Oct 11, 2021