Robert Cairns: Baseball reflects 'that hope that springs eternal'

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Robert Cairns, The Daily Star, Oneonta, N.Y.
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Apr. 2—"The outlook wasn't brilliant for the Mudville nine that day;

"The score stood four to two with but one inning more to play.

"And then when Cooney died at first, and Barrows did the same,

"A sickly silence fell upon the patrons of the game."

That's the opening stanza from poet Ernest Lawrence Thayer's "Casey at the Bat: A Ballad of the Republic Sung in the Year 1888," an ode to baseball, penned in the year cited in its title.

The country's mania for what came to be known as "Our National Pastime" was in its early days, then. Professional baseball had become a thing less than 20 years earlier, when the Cincinnati Red Stockings — now the Reds — became the first organization to pay a team of men to make baseball their job. Major League Baseball became official in 1876, when the teams of the day adopted the Major League Baseball Constitution, a document that, much amended, governs the top level of the sport to this day.

I love baseball. It's the closest thing I have to a religion.

I love that the opening of baseball season coincides with spring. It's a necessity, of course, as the game requires vast open spaces and green grass, domed stadiums notwithstanding.

But it's also a hopeful time. The dawning of Opening Day portends the longer days on the way and the ease of the summer days to come. It comes alongside budding trees, warmer weather and the anticipation of all kinds of outdoor recreation.

The game is a companion throughout those summer days, too. The 162-game season means there's big-league baseball almost every day, in many cities across the continent, from the beginning of April to the end of September. The playoffs and World Series extend that run through October, when both baseball and summer weather are truly done for the year.

Of course, there's a lot more to baseball than the major leagues. There are neighborhood sandlots and Little League programs where kids learn to love the game. There are high school fields, where teens get a taste of coaching and competition.

Growing up, I also watched "town teams," organized teams of grown men who played ball not for money, but for the love of the game and the pride of the communities they represented.

And some of my favorite memories are of minor league baseball.

I spent a lot of summer evenings in the stands at Damaschke Field in Oneonta in the 1970s, watching the Oneonta Yankees. As a young child, it was a thrill to see real professional ballplayers. As I grew, and as my understanding of the game grew with me, I appreciated that those young men were in the early part of a journey that might — or might not — lead them to a career in the major leagues.

I remember my first visit to Yankee Stadium, and how emerging from the dark concourse into the seats with a view of the sunlit field felt like walking into another world. I've been to a two Yankee Stadiums and several other major league parks in the years since, and the feeling is much the same, though it lacks some of the childish wonder.

I'll visit Yankee Stadium and some minor league parks this summer if time and the COVID-19 pandemic allow. I'll watch a lot of baseball on television — an indulgence my patient wife seems not to mind.

I love to see a great defensive play. A dominant performance by a pitcher can be riveting. And a well-placed hit down the line, or one that splits the outfielders, is a beautiful sight to see. Towering home runs are fun, too.

Spoiler alert: The hero, Casey, in Thayer's poem strikes out at the end. But it's other words from the poem that stick with me and come to my mind each spring.

It's about a spark that lives in the fans despite what looks like an impending loss for their team. Thayer called it "that hope that springs eternal within the human breast."

Baseball may not be the national pastime it once was, with the growth of other sports and entertainment options, but it remains a part of our national fabric. May it ever be so.

Robert Cairns is the managing editor of The Daily Star. He can be reached at rcairns@thedailystar.com or 607-441-7217.