The return of an old flame 

It seduced me when I was too young to be seduced by anything else. It burned me and teased me, but the passion went away for a long time. Now, for some reason, the old feelings are coming back.

I remember the crack of the bat against a hardball bound not by stitches but by electrical tape. That's what we had to use until we collected enough 2-cent Coke bottles to sell, giving us the hard cash to spend on that utmost luxury: the dollar baseball.

I remember the time we scrimped to buy a ball for 50 cents, then went to Phil's drug counter for 10-cent cherry limes. I remember the first time somebody really tagged that ball, and it flew toward second base, sawdust spewing out the back and looking like a World War II plane hit by enemy gunfire.

I remember the penny packs of baseball cards. I would open the wrapper, and the smell of the stick of bubble gum would waft all around me. I'd try to chew it, but it was like gnawing on Sheetrock. That didn't matter. What mattered was the face that would emerge from the package. God, please let it be a Yankee. Maybe a Mickey or a Roger, a Joe Pepitone or an Elston Howard. Ecstasy! Or sometimes it was another Steve Boros or Dave Nicholson. Despair!

I remember our backyard, with the base paths and home plate worn in by our hours of playing regular games, work-up, flies and skinners, or sometimes burnout. There was the scary thrill of knocking a home run to right field, which meant over Mrs. Anderson's fence. Then there was the terror of sprinting for life itself while Mrs. Anderson's herd of Chihuahuas, the closest thing on God's dry earth to piranhas, yipped incessantly and nipped away tiny pieces of flesh around the ankle, causing scars that would become badges of honor.

Everybody batted 15 to 20 times. Scores often reached the high double digits. There was the nerd of the block, who kept standings, averages, and a pitcher's ERA. We would play until dark, until we knew the ball was in the vicinity only because we heard it buzz past our ears.

There were lessons to be learned. We found out that playing catcher doesn't pay when one squats too close to home plate. The crack of the bat was against not the ball but the side of my head. I remember a trip to the doctor, my first stitches, and my mom standing in the corner of the living room, speechless, a solitary tear running down her face.

Then came the disappointment. Waiting for the Mickey Mantle muscles that never came. Dreaming of being a major leaguer but missing the Little League cut year after year. Finally realizing that the tease was over, that the dream was going to have to remain just that.

Then the Yankees finished in last, signaling the beginning of the end. Free agency. Expansion. Salary disputes. Strikes. No longer lovers, just good friends.

But there were still thrills: Hank Aaron, Reggie Jackson, the Yanks' return, Nolan Ryan no-hitters -- just enough joy to fan the dying embers, to revive the fading sparks.

Those are the images in my head these days. It could be the Royals' fault -- a team of youngsters who look as if they have fun playing the game. Eight returning regular starters; not a jaded, free-agent bungee star (such as Dean Palmer or Jay Bell) in the bunch; a tough-as-nails manager who tells it like it is; a ballpark that is not a sterile multisport cavern and wasn't built in the last 10 minutes as an attempt to resurrect nostalgia. Real nostalgia dies with places like Tiger Stadium and perhaps soon Fenway, which will join the Polo Grounds and Ebbets Fields in baseball memory while palaces saturated with luxury suites rise to cater to the corporate.

Yep, this year I blame the Royals. I blame baseball. Damn that woman!

Inside Pitches My radio is usually turned to WHB 810 for sports, but from now on I'm roaming away from The Jim Rome Show. Occasionally, he has time for actual sports, but more often it's an endless line of grovelers acting like a Jim Rome tour stop is the next coming of Christ. Or take his penchant for keeping callers on hold for hours, then humiliating and hanging up on them in merciless fashion, sometimes just for the hell of it. He then follows with a 30-minute radio lecture on how not to get a run. Sorry, Jim, your take sucks.

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