Baseball will always be the same, no matter how much it isn’t the same.
You can dress it up all you want with mascot races, raffle drawings, over-priced hot dogs, home-run explosions and astronomical salaries, but there will always be small boys down by the dugout, staring longingly at the kid pitcher, seeing their someday selves. There will always be older people sitting in the shady seats under bleachers, taking it all in, remembering. There will always be guys in T-shirts, sons and fathers with matching mitts, suburban college kids basking in beer, guys posing with the portraits of legends like DiMaggio, Mantle and Cobb.
There will always be phenoms.
That’s what the Washington Nationals have right now: an out-and-out, genuine, dyed-in-the-fastball phenom and All-American young guy with a beard stubble and a hundred-mile-an-hour whiffer.
That would be Stephen Strasburg, the rookie sensation pitcher who, in four starts since coming up from the minors like a savior, has won two, lost one, and struck out a ton. He’s young, unassuming, professional, married and throws a ball that sinks like the Titanic on its last breath.
That’s what a group of seniors from the Georgetown Senior Center, still game in their own way, and still reeling with memories from the loss of founder Virginia Allen, got to see for a trip to the ballpark led by Jorge Bernardo, driving the van and leading the way.
They ate hot dogs, stayed out of the sun, they cheered as grandmother and grandson (Marta Mejia and Sebastian Carazo), aunt and nephew (Helen Adams and Gerard Duckett) and mother and daughter (Janice Rahimi and Jamila), or as themselves, like Gloria Jiminez, Jane Markovic, Betty Snowden, Betty Hoppel and volunteer Mary Meyer.
Some cheered as old diehard Chicago baseball fans, like Vivian Lee, who, as the presidential mascot race came up, remembered the ways of White Sox owner Bill Veeck, Jr., who was the first great baseball promoter. “People thought he was a little bit crazy,” she said. “In Chicago, you were back in the 1950s and probably now a White Sox Fan or a Cubs fan. I was a White Sox fan. We lived in Hyde Park.”
We reminisced, rattled off old names: Early Wynn, Chico Carresquel, Minnie Minoso, Rocky Colavito, Nellie Fox and so on.
Baseball lives on like that, in the reciting of names.
Down by the field, before the game, Strasburg was warming up: raised leg, follow through, intense concentration, red uniform on green field. Cameras were clicking in the sun.
The game was like a slow, teasing dance. Strasburg struck out nine, but gave up nine hits, most of them, strangely, on two-strike counts. It may be that the kid doesn’t know how to throw a bad pitch on purpose, which is a learned thing with time.
In front of us, a young man was yelling and screaming, drowning out the occasional “yikes” from our group. He could have been Strasburg — except for the tattoos, the nose piercing, the fanatic eyes. But he did sport a wobbly chin beard and he bounced up, hand held high, before I realized he was high-fiving. He ran down the row of the Georgetown ladies and high-fived them all after another Strasburg strike out.
That’s the game, folks.
It ended 1-0 for the Kansas City Royals, on dinkers and dubious hits and on nothing much for us.
But everyone will remember the afternoon, the silence on the field, the shadows, the stillness until the windup and the pitch.
That was baseball, the day the folks from the Georgetown Senior Center came to watch.