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 The Great American Art

Whenever my Italian friends lift their noses and sneer at the lack of "art" in America, or my German friends click their tongues derisively at the concept of American "culture," I give my best John Wayne stare and defend our art, our culture with one concise word: baseball.

Baseball remains a uniquely American art, a celebration of folk culture if you will. A paean to the democratic ideal of six-dollar-and-ninety-seven-cent entertainment. And at no time am I better reminded of this truism than on Opening Day at Dodger Stadium.

Ah, traditions. Peanuts, crackerjacks, hot dogs, fans with "L.A." tattooed cheeks, babies with blue booties, foam fingers, rockets red glare (courtesy of Hollywood Fireworks), F-18s flying in air, and, oh yes, the booing. Let's not forget the booing.

Certainly, the fans didn't forget at Dodger Stadium this year. Well, yes, but it's part of the art--the tradition, you see, to boo the other team. Perhaps it strikes our British friends as uncouth in a game derived from Cricket. But after all, we don't generally riot at baseball games as they've been known to do at soccer matches. We just do the wave. Unless someone touches our beer or our hat and we're playing Chicago or New York.

But now we're playing Arizona. Doves fly peacefully overhead before the game. Surely a good sign? Then again, perhaps just a reminder that Randy "Dove-Killer" Johnson's pitching against us.

Speaking of pitchers, that's a major part of the artistry right there. Brush-back, spitter, bean-ball, why there's a whole array of styles. Last year, Dodger starter, Chan Ho Park, added the flying leap to his arsenal, but I suspect that this mode may soon be as passé as Dadaism. Not many people can manage the high-kick, pirouette action needed.

But other traditions live on. Sure we boo Arizona; today's the season opener. Game one. We've got to warm up for the Giants next week. Still, etiquette prevails. Boyish charm in the opposition will be rewarded. Through codes as unwritten and intricate as any European Regency court dance, unexpected heroes emerge.

Such as pre-game underdog, number-double-zero for the D'Backs: Curtis Leskanic. For a brief moment, he countermands the boos and wins over the crowd with an endearing grin and a "Oh, c'mon," mouthed for Diamond Vision. The fans cheer. A warm moment ensues. At that moment, the expected ritual dance of pre-announcements at Dodger Stadium becomes free-form performance art or perhaps a Disney movie.

Cast as the leads? Pick your stars. Local radio announcer, Lon Landis, found his favorite before the game, declaring, "The Dodgers, proving that money is no object, brought in a big name talent: Barry Manilow." Art, after all, is an acquired taste.

But while Curt Leskanic had his fifteen minutes, or perhaps fifteen seconds, of fame, undoubtedly the man of the moment was none other than "Left Fielder, Number 10: Gary Sheffield." Oh, don't let all those boos fool you; it's just part of the unfolding drama. Sure, he mentioned in pre-season contract negotiations that all his teammates were useless, and the team would be nothing without him. But the fans? We weren't fooled. Sure, we booed him a bit. All right. A lot.

But when Sheffield made a run-saving catch early in the game and followed up with the game winning home run, we were willing to chant: "Ga-ry! Ga-ry!" A fan behind me muttered something to his girlfriend about Sheffield representing, "Everything that is the worst in baseball." Certainly nothing could be farther from the truth. Zero to Hero: Isn't that what American art is all about?

Gary Sheffield epitomizes the art of Americana. While charm is endearing, success is even better. "Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing, " declared American Heartland hero, Vince Lombardi. Sure enough. Just look at the Persian Gulf War, at the opening of the American West, at Hiroshima. We don't always know high art, but we know what we like. Americans like winners. The French may claim to have better fashion, the Germans better philosophers, and the British better decorum, but true Americans know that success equals the best art of all.

So go ahead, German friends, Russian friends, French friends--Europeans all. Go ahead and sneer at our cultural shortcomings. In return, I give you traditions, our freedoms, our heritage, our ninety feet from base to base, our umpires, our hot dogs, our Budweiser, our big screen instant replays, our cowboy hats, our painted faces, our two-octave national anthem, our booing, our prima donnas, our bad boys, our free agents yearning to make millions, our winners.

My friends, I give you American art. I give you baseball.

April 2001

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