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Wednesday, Feb. 4, 2004 - 2:43 p.m.

On baseball and No. 42

It's amazing, but apparently three straight weeks where the temperature does not rise above freezing can make a sunny, 40-degree morning feel like spring.

As I stood in the kitchen this morning, in front of a window open three inches to provide some fresh air in our overheated apartment, the scent of wet ground and new life the scent of spring reached my nostrils. It might have been an olfactory illusion, but the bright light reflecting off the neighbors' vinyl siding made me squint and it wasn't too much of a stretch to imagine that spring and warm weather and Easter were no more than two weeks away.

But they're not. Stupid groundhog.

Without fail, that first whiff of spring real and imagined always makes me think of baseball. It's unique in sports because football starts weeks before that first hint of fall floats on the breeze, yet baseball comes in April and chances are there's already been at least one spring-like day in the preceding weeks.

How fitting, then, on the day when my mind momentarily flirts with the thought of sunny days spent in the bleachers and the smell of lush, green grass that ESPN.com posted an editorial suggesting that baseball do more to honor Jackie Robinson, the first black player in the major leagues. In 1997 on the day marking the 50th anniversary of Robinson's debut, baseball retired No. 42 "in perpetuity" to honor him. President Bill Clinton was on hand for the ceremony at Shea Stadium, where a banner with "42" in blue with red outlines was unveiled on the wall next to the blue-and-orange Nos. 14, 37 and 41 retired to honor former managers Gil Hodges and Casey Stengel and former pitcher Tom Seaver. Any current major leaguers wearing 42 were allowed to keep it for the rest of their careers, but no new players would be given a jersey with 42 on the back. Among those wearing it were at least three who did so in honor of Robinson, black players who recognized his achievement 50 years earlier: Mo Vaughn, Butch Huskey and Mike Jackson. ESPN suggests altering that policy and creating an award that selects one player each season to wear No. 42 as both an honor to Robinson and that player. It's not a completely original idea, as at least one columnist suggested the number be unretired two years ago.

When the baseball season begins in earnest this April, only one player will continue to wear the number, according to ESPN.com: Yankees pitcher Mariano Rivera, who does so only because as far as I know that's the number some equipment manager handed him one year in spring training. As far as I know, the Yankees, for whatever reason (I like to think it's their elitist arrogance), do not recognize Jackie Robinson as most teams do, with a banner or a flag somewhere in the stadium showing No. 42. I don't know that they will once Rivera retires, either. It's appropriate, then, that the last player to wear it in the National League Robinson's league did so in his honor in the city in which he played, New York. That was Vaughn, whose season with the Mets ended early last May because of a knee injury that now looks like it has ended his career as well. Under contract through the 2005 season, Vaughn announced last month that he won't play this year and his career is probably over.

I used to think that, had I grown up in the 40s or 50s, I would've been a Brooklyn Dodgers fan. Granted, that might have required that I would've been born in New York or New Jersey, but putting all that aside for the moment, the mystique associated with Brooklyn and the Dodgers always intrigued me. Doris Kearns Goodwin's memoir helped further that belief. In college, I wrote a short story surrounding the Dodgers and Robinson's debut. Perhaps I'll post that someday.

As far as No. 42 is concerned, I look at that number and think "Jackie Robinson," though he died four years before I was born. Any image I have of him playing is from archival film footage. But there's just something about those two digits together, something about the image of them on the back of a jersey of a player as he steps into the batter's box. It's a hitter's number, not a pitcher's. No. 41 Tom Seaver's belongs on a pitcher, on the mound. No. 42 belongs inside the chalk lines of the batter's box. The simplicity of a blue "42" sitched onto the back of that pure white Dodgers home jersey, the elegant script of the team name on front and the stark, patriotic contrast of the red numerals on the front make the jersey more than a uniform to me. In a way, it's art.

Sometimes, I can't explain why baseball has such a hold on me. But for myself, no explanation is necessary.

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