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Thursday, April 24, 2008 | Arlin Schumann may not have liked Petco Park’s postmodern ambience, but it sure would have liked his grumpy fan credentials. Any place where the game is played, and fans cheer, and ball counts are maintained, would have welcomed this curmudgeon of a genuine ball yard creature. In fact, his life depended on it.
If Arlin Schumann had known about steroids and human growth hormones, he still would have grumbled joyously about the vicissitudes of the game that kept him alive through much of another afflicted baseball season. Baseball has a way of transcending even baseball players, a rhythm and cadence that ensures its survival even when some are out at home. The current troubles, the hearings, the taint and the heartache, send me back to a man who was attached to both kidney machines and box scores. I visited him frequently as both he and baseball struggled to breathe, in 1981, and will think of him in the cool breezes at Petco Park.
Arlin Schumann, in his late 50s, laid up, was nevertheless spirited and chatty. He measured the flow of his dialysis treatments in a Long Island facility as against the fluctuations of the baseball standings. While visiting my friend, I discovered his built-in sense of the present and future by his daily measurement of “where they stand.” His face drained of color, his eyes still shining, he took stock of the world he clung to by his regular declaration: “All right. I’ve gotta check the baseball.”
But that summer, the ballplayers went on strike, and the standings stalled. A horrible inertia permeated the sports pages of Arlin’s Newsday. Midseason, the critical cycle of wins and losses, of stats and streaks, simply stopped like a deadened summer breeze. The pumped blood still flowed through Arlin’s machine, cleansed and life-sustaining, but it seemed to fade further from the fullness of his cheeks. Some 50 games vanished from the schedule, 50 units of time, space, and order for this downcast fan who could no longer “check the baseball.”
He told me, “I don’t get stuck on any of the players too much. It’s the game that matters. That’s going to go on, no matter what any bum may do.” I think Arlin might have gone easy on Roger Clemens, in the end. And he would have pined for Trevor fever.
So, short on games, Arlin began to tell me about a visit he made twenty years earlier to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY. “Kennedy was president,” he remembered, “and the Yanks clobbered the Reds, 4-1, in the World Series.” He sighed, letting out pain and shaking off the indignity of his infirmity with the therapy of memory.
Arlin spoke of Cooperstown and its shining Otsego Lake, a long oval mirror edging along state route 80, widening its mouth near the baseball village. He described the wooded mountain grounds of the region, tucked far enough away from the New York Thruway to retain their freshness and their scented seclusion. His baseball story, joining him in his fight for life, fueled his mind, and saved the game from itself.
There in that sterile hospital cubicle, I could see the lake near Doubleday Field. I could traverse the rich cattle pastures and thick cornfields along the two-lane highway. I could smell the apple trees and the wildflowers of the baseball valley.
When something in baseball saddens me, I remember the testimony of my private knothole laureate. I angle across Otsego Lake, past Glimmerglass State Park, and on through Kingfisher Tower, Natty Bumppo’s Cave, and Fairy Springs Park. Baseball is not an injunction, it is a narrative. Baseball cleanses itself; I understood that from the oral tradition of my nostalgic friend who dreamed again of boating the Susquehanna River, docking at the Springfield Public Landing, and walking through Main Street to check out Hank Aaron’s 715th home run ball in the Hall of Fame.
“When you get there next,” Arlin told me, “make sure to show your kids Babe Ruth’s locker. It’s the actual locker from Yankee Stadium.” Indeed, as I saw a few years later with my daughters, the Locker, like an archaeological relic, stands in the center of the hall, surrounded by trophies, uniforms, bats, and other mementos of “No. 3.”
Along the edges of the exhibits, the chronicles of a solar game not stopped by a clock or a penalty, a game whose coordinates are measured not in yards but in yarns, an enterprise so knowing that a man’s constant goal is to simply come home — or offer himself as a sacrifice — were being woven and rewoven by fathers and children, by mothers and grandfathers. Cheerful guides in shiny red blazers directed us to famous baseballs and eternal plaques. If only Arlin was there, I think to myself, how dashing he’d be in one of those sport coats, his pulse maintained by runs, bases, hits, and “where they stand.”
It’s the game itself that returns every spring. Baseball, I once saw for myself, is in the blood. Go, Friars!
Ben Kamin, a rabbi and author, is founder of Reconciliation: The Synagogue Without Walls, an interfaith pastoral agency based in San Diego. His latest book, “Nothing Like Sunshine: A Memoir of My High School, A Friend, and Martin Luther King,” will be published next year by Michigan State University Press. If you have any thoughts or comments, send a letter to the editor.