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Nothing can dim the magic

It's embarrassing for a grown man to admit, but I get choked up at baseball parks.

I always have. Probably always will.

Still, every year, with a mixture of dread and anticipation, I have to sidle up to one, take a whiff of it, poke my nose up to the fence and dream again the lifelong dream of being one of the guys on the other side of the fence.

The field is hallowed ground, and the people allowed to tread upon it have devoted their lives to earning the right. The park doesn't matter.

When I was young, too young to do anything more than chase foul balls and errant throws when the big boys played, a few lines in a cow pasture was all it took.

Now Al Lang Stadium in St. Petersburg is good enough. Or the ThunderDome.

Baseball is not a thing that strains easily from the blood. It is a disease that can be contracted in the backwoods of Georgia with a corncob baseball, a tobacco-stick bat, and a few pictures of the high kicks of Warren Spahn and Juan Marichal, a little bit of imagination and a lot of hope.

As a little boy standing behind the chicken-wire screen watching the big boys and grown men play, I decided I wanted to be on the other side of the fence. I would be happy on the other side of the fence. I would be a star _ like Willie Mays or Bob Gibson. I would spend the rest of my life as one of the privileged who had earned the right to stand on the sacred ground.

In the years that have come between that little boy peering through the chicken wire of a makeshift field and the fortysomething man staring at spring training warmup pitches at Al Lang, the game has changed, and it has changed for the worse.

It is a harder disease for a young boy to catch nowadays. There are too many teams, too many heroes for a day, too many designated hitters and one-inning pitchers, too many mediocre outfielders who got on the field because they were basketball players with a popular name and millions of dollars, not because of their baseball skills.

But they have not killed the game. There is still the timeless sound of a solidly hit ball on a still afternoon, even though the sound has been cheapened at times by the tinny sound of metal instead of wood.

There is still the peculiar chatter heard only at a baseball game: "Hummmmm, babe," to a pitcher whose fastball is smoking, and all the other nonsensical encouragement that teammates chant to each other.

There is still the pop of a perfect pitch hitting the catcher's mitt and not the bat. There is the interminably tense lull when the bases are loaded and the batter is dangerous and the pitch is on the way.

There is the comfort of announcers whose voices are meant to keep you calmly informed rather than falsely excited.

But those are all add-ons. The heart of the game for me is that hallowed field on which it's played. That was a symbol of achievement when I fell in love with the game as a child, and remains so today.

If you can hit a corncob with a tobacco stick, Koufax's curveball is nothing. If you can throw a slider with a rubber ball with only a hint of seams, you can do magic with a new baseball with nice, high ridges.

And for the rest of your life, you are convinced you can do it as well as the guys who get the chance to be on the other side of the fence.

The Orioles were playing the Blue Jays on Tuesday. A new pitcher was on the warmup mound, popping the catcher's mitt with a crisp slider or a live fastball. His speed is close to what mine was once; my fastball was a lot livelier.

Those are the things I tell myself still. I'm sure the comparisons I make are no longer close to realistic.

"How does it feel to be an Oriole?" a man sharing my space at the fence asked the young pitcher as he finished his tosses.

"Don't know yet," he answered. "Too early."

I wondered if he meant it was too early in the season or too early in his career as an Oriole.

I think the man who asked just wanted to know how it felt to be on the other side, on the hallowed ground.

Some players today may not understand the question.

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