Let’s Play Two

Ernie Banks’s enthusiasm was contagious as Covid as he declared, “Let’s play two!”

Will the regularly scheduled doubleheader, the double-dip, ever make a comeback in Major League Baseball? Auguring this is a matter of time. Literally.

To produce a leaner product, MLB introduces a clock, decrees pick-off throws be limited, got the message that fashionable yet soul-sucking analytics’ shifts be banned, and for good measure threw in near pillow-sized bases to encourage between-pitches action.

Oh yes, via some seasons ago, fewer per-game “visits” (five) to the pitcher are authorized: MVR, standing for Mound Visits Remaining. And nagging at me is how pitchers’ ERA(s) (earned-run average[s]) are affected by the presence of ghost-runners. “Inherited” I imagine.

Benches now have ten seconds from an umpire’s call to request a video-review. These continue to slow the otherwise-quickened tempo.

Amidst the within-game sea change, each club now would also get a whack at every club over the course of 162 games: the good, the bad, and the wallydraigle. This is known as “a balanced schedule,” tho it’s really shapeless. And more travel. (See three paragraphs below.)

Private-airline food and travel-fatigue aside, from experience on the minor-leagues level it’s estimated the average nine-innings MLB game shall diet: from three hours and three minutes to two-and-a-half hours.

Welcome home, then, to the old-fashioned weekend-afternoon doubleheader? The weekday-twinight doubleheader? Such would no longer amount to a crushing eight-hours plus at the ballpark. Especially if kids are involved.

Players also would get a blow. The off-day following a Sunday doubleheader would ease extra-travel pressures deriving from fewer intra-division (divisions are predicated on geographic-rivalries) games—a number that’s dropped from nineteen to thirteen.

To repeat, vampiric analytics too, over our years, was sucking the life-blood from the game; extinguishing the scintillating, the spontaneity, the fun (oodles of money can produce and foster the same clumpy effect; joy cannot be monetized); reducing longevous, rococo-florid ballgames to the even worse predetermined outcome.

Time for le cordon sanitaire to boredom.

So put this in the time-to-cringe capsule: Texture was sacrificed on the altar of the spectral. “Put it in the books,” as Howie Rose might say. Put it behind…ossification and senility.

Now infielders’ athleticism would be on display. Batters would be forced not to overthink and return to purer hand-eye coordination. Pitchers would re-rely on muscle-memory rather than endless videos’ information from the clubhouse or, heaven forbid, tweeted from the bench.

And the Powers…are…thinking…of the Fans? Mere efts. A novel approach to the recessive-gene of fandom. Yet God forbid between-innings commercials be reduced or accelerated to meteor-speed. (They’d be MVP’d!)

Stubbornly reluctant to change compared to cricket, which has reinvented itself in many timely ways, baseball by its starchy, branchiopod standards is going all out to inject Banks’s ardor…even to schedule pack-a-windlestraw-lunch doubleheaders? To re-energize long-case clock fans, galvanize younger ones!

A novel approach to foreshadowing the past.

In the summer-rhythmic diurnality of baseball, wherein the rivalries and history of the world are played out in miniature, wherein followers debate and thrive in nostalgia on the modern-rare day off, we’ll play the regularly scheduled two too…yestermorrow.

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Wait ’til Next Year

Need we say more?

The drouth was over. It ended the only way it could. A rebarbative, plague-infected, player celebrated along with the still-healthy ones. After six games. Some fans were inside a gleaming hitherto-unused, untested (no pun in this “get-tested” era) stadium: the first to see in-person action since a handful of spring-training exhibitions.

(Call it, and what follows The Dangling [Hot Stove League] Conversation…another tale told by an idiot…a.k.a. a workshopping of 2021.)

There turned out to be no reappearance of baseball at the Summer Olympics after all. And no showcase-anarchy in the UK.

There were 14-innings doubleheaders and the prospect of tripleheaders.

Tenth-innings started with fleet-runners on second base.

One club clubbed 29 runs in a rout.

Teams got sick. Teams got well. Hung around the inkwell.

There was annoying piped-fan noise.

Home-teams wore road uniforms and vice versa. Sometimes, the players themselves couldn’t figure out when a game was won or lost.

There was a team playing its home schedule in another country, within a minor-league setting. (The entire minor-league season, all levels, had been canceled.)

There was little talk of manufacturing runs. (“What [made-in-the-USA or foreign] factory does that?” [hoho]) Batted balls either flew out of vacant parks (cf. scoring 29, above) or there was “a K.” The spin-rate launch-angle-analytics-exit-velocity era was in full swing (as it were).

Why outfielders? Or maybe 4, even 5? There was the cricketlike shifting of infielders.

Or…we’ve had to grow accustomed to four outfielders.

There was serious talk about fun and the pace of the professional-game.

Hitting below the Mendoza Line was virtually acceptable and probably inevitable thro a puny 60-game schedule. This sample-size determination, versus a regular-season 162 games, plus 30-to-40 preseason, in part accounts for many statistical anomalies. Essentially, we watched an April-and-September season.

More anomalies you ask? A recently disgraced, if unrepentant, sub-.500 team almost sneaked into the World Series. Something like half the teams were rewarded with postseason berths.

In hard times there were unseemly disputes between rich ballplayers and richer owners over, what else?..more riches.

And a zillionaire owner (of questioned background) would change the topography of New York baseball.

There was players’ outcry throughout MLB. (We must love one another or die.)

Lost in 2020 were Kaline, Seaver, Gibson, Brock, Ford, MorganHorace Clarke.

Gained in all probability (thus saving jobs) was the DH by the N.L., which hereby would join the rest of the uncivilized-baseball world. (It seems increasingly likely the full change would occur round a new collective-bargaining agreement [CBA] in 2022-23.)

Watch out for neutral-site World Series, which aren’t plagued by the late-October or even November (or beyond) vagaries of unseasonable heat, unreasonable cold, rain, wind, and sleet/snow. Year-round international baseball, long predicted on the model of the ICC, has to be in the (metaphorical) offing.

It started, in-season, as so-called Subway Series. More and more, regional rivalries will further supersede traditional intraleague-play (there’s overlap of course) rivalries. Costs will be cut that way.

Questionable is whether, from here, every announcer will travel with his or her team anymore, or regularly gather onsite during CDC-projected waves of the coronavirus. More costs cut…and Zoom! it’s back to the future.

About a century ago, during other times of a great plague in 1918, enigmatic Hal Chase was accused of cheating, certainly gambling on baseball (and his name seeped into, before he was acquitted of such involvement, the Chicago Black Sox Scandal a year later), as we saw among several recently—the above-referenced Houston Astros as well as the Boston Red Sox.

If history doesn’t repeat, its stories and lessons rhyme. (This witticism ofttimes is attributed to Mark Twain, even if he never said it; positively, he never saw the clever observation published under or over his name.) It took Babe Ruth and the live-ball era/revolution of the home run—just as, perhaps, proponents of analytics (or anti-analytics) are functionally accomplishing today—to rejuvenate the game.

Irony is its own reward…the walking shadow…

…that measures what we lost.

On to Le Sacre du Printemps! (in 2021 or 2022 or even 2023 and then well beyond that)…when it’s Wait ’til this Year all over again….

It was the 2020, stupid.

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Joe DiMaggio’s Second-longest Hitting Streak at 70 Years*

Joe DiMaggio barnstorms (and instructs) in Japan following the 1950 World Series.

As I (Evander) write this on July 16, 2020, it is 79 years since Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak reached its 56th and final game.

In the twilight of his proud career the Clipper would enjoy his second-longest consecutive-game batting streak: 19 games.*

Between September 7, 1950, and September 26, 1950, DiMaggio collected 29 hits in 75 at-bats. That’s a .387 accomplishment. He had 8 home runs and drove in (RBI) 25 during this streak.

On September 11 he even hoisted three home runs into the distant left-field bleachers of Griffith Stadium. In his career, DiMaggio had hit three home runs in only two other games: on June 13, 1937, and on May 23, 1948 (this the first game of a doubleheader in Cleveland…two of the homers came off Bob Feller).

Overall that 1950 season, his last great one, Giuseppe led the American League with a .585 slugging percentage. He walked 80 times that year, an unusually high number for his career. He had 32 home runs, 122 RBI, and a .301 batting average.

Meanwhile, an 18-year-old slugger in Class C Ball, Joplin, Missouri, presumably still learning to ply his trade at shortstop, had 199 hits for a .383 batting average, 26 homers, and a .638 slugging percentage.

By 1951, and in right field not shortstop, Mickey Mantle would join the American hero, the greatest since Lindbergh and Ruth, on the New York Yankees.

(As fate would have it during the World Series that year, in running for a fly ball off the bat of another New York rookie and great-to-be, Willie Mays, who uncharacteristically swung late, Mantle [as DiMaggio called him off the play] caught his foot on the lip of a rubbery-drain and popped a knee. The injury was the beginning of Mantle’s star-crossed career.)

*My bad. The great DiMaggio had a 23-game hitting streak in 1940! (Thus we have an anniversary of 80 years as this blog was posted, along with the 70 of its title.)…Now that I’ve extended this essay, I’ll do so a little more. The also-great Red Smith, equally at home at a cuppy-racetrack or the baseball-sward, finished it all thus: “There were, of course, many others [memorable and favorites], not necessarily great. Indeed, there was a longish period when my rapport with some who were less than great made me nervous. Maybe I was stuck on bad ballplayers. I told myself not to worry. Some day there would be another Joe DiMaggio.”

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Babe Ruth Had the Spanish Flu Twice in 1918

The magazine everyone in the US once read identifies Hemingway and Ruth as two of the most-important Americans of the preceding century.

My (Evander’s) old friend and longtime supporter of the Right off the Bat project, Mike Katzmarek, reported a story he’d heard on a French-radio broadcast that started me on the slightly scattered subjects of this blog. Thanks also go to the late Professor Peter L. Hays for his singular knowledge of Ernest Hemingway. Any errors of fact or logic or proportion, or lapses in taste in the following conspectus are, emphatically, solely my own.

Nineteen-eighteen is one of those big-news years. Getting into the action early, Ernest Hemingway, as yet too unworldly for fame, sailed from New York to Europe on May 11. By July, he was injured by mortar-fire in Italy. A bogus letter (see the link four paragraphs below) from F. Scott Fitzgerald claims Hemingway was too macho to quarantine during the early stages of the Spanish (originating in Kansas and likely spread to Europe by US troops) Flu, not even to wash his hands they say.

On May 19 and a world away, Babe Ruth—who would hit 11 home runs that year, a staggering total, more than entire teams (Ed Barrow of all people was among the many who felt the home run was something of a fad to fade away), though Tillie Walker matched the great one’s power-number—came down with a high fever.

Ruth would be reported near death.

The Behemoth of Blast was transitioning to a legend. So was Papa Hemingway. The pair, in age separated by four years, would soon come to define the Jazz Age, the Roaring Twenties.

In a smidgen of that era, Hemingway would have to quarantine at the Fitzgeralds’. It was at Cap d’Antibes, in 1926, part of a deft à trois arrangement the Babe would’ve admired…while Papa gravitated toward rich (“Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me….”)* women. (Ruth is never known to have quarantined, and he’d have plenty of his own gold, sans digging, by the 1920s.)

Ruth’s heroics would be reported, in Boston particularly, as akin to an avenging Uncle Sam on the battlefields of France. The Red Sox luckily had sent few players to that bleak theater.

The 1918 World Series, which would haunt Red Sox Nation (the agony of Cubs fans would be a footnote to it) for nearly a century, was over by early September as the MLB season ended on the eleventh (after a 140-game schedule). Due to the pandemic the government had ordered citizens to find “meaningful work.” Ruth signed on with Charles Schwab’s steel factory in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, largely to play ball.

By early October, however, and always on the move (another trait shared with Papa), the Babe was back in his native Baltimore—two or three years (or so) before tripping the light fantastic in New York. He was likely recovering from a second-round knockout by the pandemic. Antibodies? Antigens? Herd immunity? Curse of the Bambino?

With vim and verve he walloped the curve
From Texas to Duluth,
Which is no small task, and I rise to ask;
Was there ever a guy like Ruth? [or Papa?]

—John Kieran

Though Papa Hemingway had several brushes with death before self-ending a crowded life, only Babe Ruth could succumb to a pandemic twice (!) and win a World Series in the same year.

Coda: The 1918 (e.g., Hal Chase’s suspension) and 1919 seasons were front-and-back-loaded with scandal not unlike what MLB had in store for the public a hundred years later, in 2017 and 2019. It was “1918 and All That.”

*The quote is from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Rich Boy,” not said by Hemingway or Ruth: just likely thought by them, too, along with many of us.

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Great Stadiums (12): When No One Shows Up

A remnant of baseball games

June 1, 2020, with nary a game played. There is no lockout. There is no players’ union work-stoppage. There has been no declaration of war. There is no paralyzing scandal. What do we do with an empty stadium? As the song says, we could put up a parking lot. If not for the social-distancing suggested, we could turn it into an urban mall…as the artist’s conception shows. Impersonate a stadium…a season….

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Great Stadiums (11): From Blueprints

And use your imagination….(credit: New York Times)

Credit Rod Kennedy Jr. for a keen perseverance. Pursuant to the story linked to his name, Kennedy unearthed (the right word) the blueprints for Ebbets Field. This is where Kennedy lives in his memories (as all us fans of baseball and cricket do, whatever the era or place in the world, Flatbush or Tibet) of a wild (in terms of where the ball was going after it left his hand)-young Sandy Koufax and the then-more-established Boys of Summer from the 1950s.

Kennedy’s dream is a one-quarter scale re-creation of Ebbets Field for a Dodgers museum. Kennedy went scavenging, in a place he more expected to find Bela Lugosi morphing into a bat, for the original stadium plans. Unfortunately, the Brooklyn Municipal fathers have reclaimed the blueprints. But much had been learned:

“The drawings revealed unknown aspects of the ballpark’s design…. ‘Photos are usually taken from some distance away, and when you stand back from the entrance you see little tiny round things on the roof of the ballpark,’ [an observer] said. The blueprints showed that these rooftop decorations, known as antefixes, were in fact baseballs, ornaments that echoed the baseball-adorned terracotta spandrels above the pilasters. The lot plan also showed that McKeever Place, on the…third-base side, was named Cedar Place in 1912.”

Charles Hercules Ebbets would be happy. His great club wouldn’t win a championship till 30 years after his death.
Whether instruments of the Dodgers Symph-phony Band have been or will be discovered, since the wrecking (base)ball of early 1960, remains unknown.

                      She’s the lyrics of Hart
                      When he wrote with Dick Rodgers,
                      A raspberry tart,
                      And the ol’ Brooklyn Dodgers!

…and a story of the new place….

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The Ol’ Neighborhood Play

It’s a beautiful day in the Neighbor “Hood” Play.

  • The pitcher does a little shuffle: By the time the ball’s released his back foot is ten inches in front of the rubber.
  • The ball whizzing toward the batter is loaded with pine-tar or similar foreign-substance; or the ball’s been scuffed on a sharpened belt-buckle to make it dance a little, dip, or sail.
  • Then there’s the ol’ neighborhood play: The shortstop maybe not even straddles second base to double up the runner at first.
  • Standing on second, the runner transmits the catcher’s signal to the batter thro some even-more elaborate signal.
  • Two out and the ball’s popped up toward third as the runner, formerly on second now scooting by, orally distracts the infielder camping under it.
  • On the bench players decode the third-base coach’s signs.

Cheating? Gamesmanship? News for the Delphic Oracle? (“They pitch their burdens off.”)

Leo Durocher may have stationed someone with jewels and binoculars in the center-field clubhouse of the Polo Grounds. But the latest revelations round the Houston Astros of 2017 and beyond (there were rumors of whistled-signals from the bench in 2019, substituting the garbage can; and were batters wired for pitch-info?) replace all the rest with an electric amplifier….or maybe an Apple Watch.

To think: It all started with Mike Fiers (who’s had a whole other on-the-field history), the most-famous whistle (tho not literally, from the Astros dugout) blower since the White House real-world Ukraine phone call.

PED are serious enough. Ditto the Suits messing with the liveliness of the ball and players corking their bats, or pitchers doctoring baseballs to obtain an unfair-competitive advantage. But the reason the Chicago Black Sox Scandal of a hundred years ago remains the seismic U.S.-sports infraction to our time is that it leaves fans questioning whether they are yawning thro predetermined exhibitions. Pro wrestling.

Think further: about the clubs that go from rags to riches in only a few seasons….The hi-tech scandal hovers over the coming schedules and, surely, whatever seasons ahead.

The ukases (if they could be called that) of the commissioner have been timid and unimaginative and weak. No championship has been stripped: even officially questioned.

As 2020 dawns (with more rules changes), this is the most-serious and unexpected situation faced by MLB, which has seen attendance continue its slide, in decades.

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There Used to Be a Ballpark Again

Don’t let the discus-thrower throw you. It’s one of the 1930s-style art-deco flourishes of a baseball stadium that recently served as a backdrop to cricket, Bangladesh-style. Then baseball again!

“How doth the city sit solitary, that was full of people!” (Lamentations)

William Carlos Williams is the author of an epic poem about Paterson. It is one of the cities “left behind.” Maybe not anymore.

In fall 2019, it was announced that plans are full-steam ahead there to restore a neglected monument to the history of baseball: Hinchliffe Stadium. Back in the day, Hinchcliffe had been one of the hubs of the Negro leagues. Today, in the shadow of its glory, Hinchliffe watches over cricket played by immigrants from Bangladesh. Soon, if things work out, these ruins will give rise to a multipurpose-sports facility; though some doubt.

Construction is “in time for the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Negro leagues.*

Once home to the New York Black Yankees and the New York Cubans, Hinchliffe was host to…Monte Irvin, Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell, and Paterson’s own Larry Doby, the first black player in the American League.

(The biggest crowd recorded at a minor-league game was 57,000. Satchel Paige, aetat. 50,  pitched. The date: I [Evander] believe August 7, 1956. The all-time single-game baseball-attendance record may have been 120,000. This was at the infamous 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics Games, a then-rare night game. In 2008, 115,000 watched the home-team Dodgers play the Boston Red Sox at the Los Angeles Coliseum. The 1964 Olympics hosted by Japan saw a throng of 114,000 at the amateur ballgame in Tokyo.)

“Previous efforts to bring the field back to life faltered, leaving residents, even young ones, fatalistic about its future. ‘When this place is fixed, I’ll be forty,’ laments fourteen-year-old Saleh Ahmed.” (This according to the New York Times.) To paraphrase from the start: maybe not this time, kid.

*  With a Negro leagues museum, Hinchliffe Stadium reopens May 19, 2023. Then the New Jersey Jackals could take on the Sussex County Miners.

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The Baseball Scene

The bat looks like a toothpick (or pen) in Henry James’s hand.

Henry James, for whom no abstraction, no characteristic or gesture, was too subtle to be examined (and examined), qualified and qualified again, is generally credited with a fictional form that was actually pioneered by women, mostly Continental-women writers on to Edith Wharton.

Mary Murdoch Mason’s Mae Madden: A Story was published three years before James’s similarly titled “Daisy Miller: A Study.” (This precedent is uncovered by S. A. Wadsworth, out of Minnesota, in an award-winning 2001 essay.)

It “mae” be noted James is also the author of The American. Its drama-version opened outside Liverpool but then fell flat in the West End of London, the city James loved, and lost a lot of money.

What does any of this have to do with cricket and baseball? Scrutinizing it from our most-reliable point of view, as the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox square off in the East End…everything!

Since literature is an element of Right off the Bat, we see James’s endlessly modulated-international theme of naive U.S. citizen encountering more worldly European, whether female and male, male and female, or same-gender, as in some form paralleling, if not quite defining, the short London series and how it will play. MLB injects itself into the heart of a more worldly cricket world.

Writing itself is a lens thro which sport, as part of the general “scene” and culture, is viewed, dissected, evaluated: Izaak Walton, Lardner, Malamud, Updike. (Along with cricket, Jane Austen mentions “base ball” in Northanger Abbey, via a ditzy character.)

Alexis de Tocqueville observed that U.S. democracy ran a risk of settling into a kind of despotic bric-a-brac. Charles Dickens could not abide the U.S. and slandered it. Jaundiced Mark Twain wrote The Innocents Abroad and later A Tramp [not “Trump”] Abroad. James thinks in the way of de Tocqueville thro The American Scene.

OK, the writers, the observers and framers, have had their say. Since London skipped out of baseball as a Summer Olympics sport, it is only fitting some of the best pros (not prose) will treat Brits to the best baseball has to offer. It’s the players’ turn to create a narrative.

In the closing chapter of our book, The Bambino comes under the Yankee Stadium tutelage of the Don. We call this first-1932 summit, and a second two-years-and-change later, “the merger.” Baseball, Cricket, Literature, and Life all, in the words of those Local Lads, the Beatles of James’s Waterloo, Liverpool, come together.

MLB will do it all over the UK scene again in 2020 (as baseball returns to the Summer Olympics in Tokyo), this time without the DH, as NL rivals the Chicago Cubs face the St. Louis Cardinals.

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Great Stadiums (10): Big Beautiful Shea Stadium

A rendition of Shea Stadium (named for William Alfred Shea) with the dome that never was: looking suspiciously like the Houston Astrodome.

I (Evander) went wild first visiting the then-new home of the New York Mets (short for Metropolitans), something like 55 years ago.

Ground was broken for “Flushing Meadow Park Municipal Stadium” on October 28, 1961.

Shea was McLuhan-cool.

It had escalators.

It had big-sized suburban, Horace Greeley-style parking.

It had exterior-aluminum ’60s-colored Go-Go panels suspended by cables that you could shake from the ramps: an incentive to avoid the Everest-peak escalators, especially on the post-game way down and out.

The game—or anything happening on field-level—was a rumor from the nosebleed seats of the upper deck.

A few years into its run, Tom Seaver would qualify as everybody’s nutty older cousin. On the first Earth Day-game at Shea, Tom Terrific would strike out the last 10 batters he faced.

It hosted the Beatles two times and was rumored to star a-rockin’ Bob Dylan (to prove that the times they were a-changin’) a year later.

Here Nolan Ryan struck out his first batter, fellow-rookie pitcher Pat Jarvis (no relation, as far as ROTB knows, to organist Jane Jarvis).

It was set up for the New York Jets, a team that switched its name from “Titans” so that only a consonant need be changed above the concession stands. Joe Namath passed for a stunning championship comeback in the permafrost and wind of December 29, 1968. The season before, only his third and best, Namath passed for a then-astounding 4,007 yards, roughly half of these at always-hip Shea.

Shea in early fall: reaching out to Namath.

A couple spins round the sun and peekaboo-safety panels were retrofitted to permit fans on lower levels a view into the bullpens.

There was almost no day-game shade on ticket lines or in the parking lot; these to-be-pitied urban trees reminded me of the sparsely treed and, frankly, mostly cheesy Freedomland of the northeast Bronx, whose Satellite City featured a metropolis under a hard-plastic, see-through cover that was almost out of  DC Comics.

Shea was intended to be domed, as was built in Houston, with a concrete or steel velarium inspired by ancient Rome. (Buckminster Fuller designed a so-called Dodger Dome to retain the Brooklyn team from migrating to Los Angeles. This and proposals similar to Fuller’s are found online.)

The Eighth Wonder of the World: No one could see balls hit high in the air during day games for the translucent-dome panels and girders. Even the grass died later, tho almost everyone could buy a behind-the-massive-dugouts seat.

The planes taking off from nearby LaGuardia Airport were obnoxiously loud.

It was next door to the 1964 New York World’s Fair.

There were no fuddy-duddy bleachers at the beginning. Much later, there were friendly outfield stands, a picnic area, and those Piazza-tent shots.

Three indelibly memorable World Series were played there as well as the first-ever National League Championship Series.

Not one of the several concrete ashtrays of the era, Shea Stadium, by any objective measure, may yet have been the worst park in which to see a major-league game. To top (or bottom) things: The years had not been kind to Shea, which always was big but not beautiful…except in the eye of this once-young beholder, even in his ear….

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