, Salem, MA


May 7, 2013

Column: Spring, swings and other important things


I had seen El Oso Blanco — The White Bear — hit before, but I was not prepared for my first live sighting. He is a large man — 6 feet 4 inches tall and 230 pounds — but at the plate, he stretches his feet impossibly wide and sinks his thick legs deep toward the dirt. The stance looks uncomfortable, tense, even painful. But El Oso Blanco is used to swinging from down there. As the pitch neared the plate, he swiped, and the ball screamed toward the ballpark’s outer limits. It slammed off the wall, scoring a runner from second, and El Oso Blanco stood calmly at second base.

For all his exploits, it was El Oso Blanco’s batting stance that snared my imagination; watching a man sink into the dirt only to burst forward strong, renewed, with clear purpose when the pitch arrived — this was the memory I carried from the stadium that Sunday afternoon. Baseball is full of odd artifacts, souvenirs from moments when the sensory and the story intersected right in front of us. A reverence for these seeming minutiae connects baseball fans; it helps us understand that in every team, game, and player, we’re all looking for the same things.

But when the game itself becomes trivial, what place is there for its minutiae?

The following day, two bombs exploded at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Still in the South, I followed the tragedy on a screen, relying on news coverage and text messages to carry my mind to the place where my heart had instantly raced. I felt the physical distance, the ache of not being there. As the search for answers stretched into the week, I recalled another story, that of former Negro Leaguer Buck O’Neil. Much of Buck’s career as a player, manager and scout was spent in the shadow of segregation, yet his love for the game never wavered. “I keep going to the ballpark,” Buck said, “to listen.”

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