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Painting a fresh red apple with paintbrushThere it is again. A post-game interview in which a Big League ball player describes his emotional state during a key point in the game as having been “definitely surreal.”

I’ve noticed a lot athletes, particularly members of the San Francisco Giants, because I watch their games more than others, are using “surreal” these days as a go-to adjective to describe what older players may have called “amazing,” “fantastic,” or “unreal.”

Those words are all acceptable synonyms for the non-art-world meaning of surreal, though they give no hint of the other-worldly, hallucinatory sense at the core of things properly called surreal.

While it’s no reason to send a player back to the minors for more practice on interview phrases, I wish ball players would excise surreal from their bat rack of handy cliches. It makes them sound as if they had spent the previous four hours at a Phish concert rather than on a baseball diamond.

Just the other day, grinning Giants rookie Kelby Tomlinson said the experience of hitting a grand slam as his first home run in the Major Leagues was, you got it, surreal.

I’m the first to give the kid a break since he’s probably heard plenty of other ball players this season describing other key hits, outstanding plays, dugout pranks or standing ovations as surreal. But an intervention is needed.

It’s become so widespread a usage that even players who speak through translators are using surreal in their native tongue like so many dazed Phish heads or art history minors. I fear by next season, players will be describing their emotional highs as “definitely post-impressionistic” or “downright Dadaesque.”

To clear the air, I offer a few baseball scenarios that would truly warrant being described as surreal:

— If Hunter Pence, the free-spirited Giants outfielder, walks his pet lobster on a leash — Salvador Dali-style — to the batting cage in advance of taking his pre-game rips.

— If hundreds of black-suited umpires wearing bowler hats descend slowly through the stadium air with rolled up umbrellas, jewel-studded chest protectors and featureless faces.

— If Los Angeles Dodgers players run forever toward first base with heavy bags of money encumbering their legs, but never reach base, while packs of vicious gulls befoul their tidy white uniforms with gallons of guano. (This is a hallucinatory dream enjoyed, perhaps, by many Giants fans.)

— If Giants manager Bruce Bochy speaks ancient Etruscan during his post game press conference and all the media people understand perfectly as he explains how shortstop Brandon Crawford “ground out a good at-bat” despite how his long hair was transformed into a tangle of hissing serpents.

Sea. Creative.Don’t get me wrong. Many unusual things can happen during a baseball game. It’s true one can go to the park or tune in a game on any given day and stand a very good chance of witnessing something never seen before.

Still, nothing truly surreal happens, unless you mistakenly count the August 1951 game when the St. Louis Browns used 3-foot-7-inch Eddie Gaedel as a first-inning pinch hitter. Gaedel, who wore the number 1/8, drew a four-pitch walk.

There was nothing surreal about this episode, which was cooked up by Bill Veeck, the Browns’ shameless publicity hound of an owner. Veeck reportedly threatened to shoot Gaedel if the wee man dared swing at a pitch.

Now had Gaedel blasted the first pitch over the center-field wall, causing all the time pieces in the stadium to slowly melt while the fielders’ mitts overflowed with milk and radishes, there would have been only one way to accurately call the play: definitely surreal.


image copy 2It’s always something different that gets me excited about the impending start of the Major League Baseball season, now just over a week away.

It could be this winter’s worth of worry about how the defending champion San Francisco Giants will fare in 2015. I won’t go into the multitudinous reasons to obsess.

It could be the roster of former boys of summer who’ve died during the off-season — Ernie Banks and Minnie Minoso top this winter’s sad roll call — who make me yearn to see how today’s rookies and journeymen will fill those positions in baseball lore.

It could be turning on sports radio, in hopes of hearing more about the golden season the Golden State Warriors are having, and hearing Giants announcer Duane Kuiper go through a half dozen lineup changes in a dull spring training game. His immediately recognizable voice is the aural equivalent of a uniform dirtied by diving for a grounder behind second.

This year, my anticipation for baseball’s resumption came from an unlikely source. A few weeks back, I was reading “The Brothers,” a 2013 history by Stephen Kinzer on John Foster Dulles and his brother, Allen, the architects of American foreign policy as secretary of state and CIA director for President Eisenhower. It’s an important book for anyone interested in the national security state, modern American exceptionalism, domestic politics of fear, and U.S. interventions in Tibet, Iran, Iraq, Guatemala, Lebanon, Indonesia, the Congo Republic, Cuba and Vietnam.

A few paragraphs about the Dulles’ reaction to Fidel Castro’s 1959 overthrow of the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista — a regime propped up by Mafia gambling resorts and American corporations cozy with the Dulles brothers — put me in the mood for baseball.

As every student of the game knows, there was a Triple-A team (one rung below the Major Leagues) playing in Havana when Batista fled and Castro took over. Kinzer offers a Cold War twist on what happened to the franchise — the Havana Sugar Kings.

Let’s pretend we’re in a rain delay and listening to announcers A. and B. kill some time talking about Cuba, baseball and the Sugar Kings.

A. Sad to see the passing of Minnie Minoso, one of the great Cuban-born major leaguers and a wonderful ambassador for all the great black Latino ballplayers who followed him.
B. Been a lot of great Cubans in the Major Leagues, back in Minoso’s day and today. Mike Cuellar, Tony Oliva, and just look at Yasiel Puig and Yoenis Cespedes right now.
A. Well, my media guide says the first Cuban to play baseball in the U.S. was a fella by the name of Esteban Bellan in 1871. Went by the first name Steve.
B. That was a ways before my time.
A. Oh, you never played a little pepper with Steve?
B. Well no, but I knew some guys who played Triple-A with the old International Leage team in Havana, the Sugar Kings.
A. That’s right, the Cincinnati Reds — kind of an ironic name, considering what happened — had the Havana Triple-A franchise from 1954 to 1960. That team drew 30,000 fans to games, and they had music, beauty pageants, all sorts of festivities for games.
B. They won the league championship in 1959.
A. Boy, what a wild year for the Sugar Kings. You know you can buy replicas of their flannel tops today. Pretty nice looking jerseys.
B. Yep, 1959. League champions, Castro takes power, and some wild stuff at the ballpark in Havana.
A. I’ll say. You know Castro, like many Cubans, was a baseball nut. Pitched in college, and attended Sugar Kings games. That year he organized a team called Los Barbudos — it means the bearded ones, the guys with beards — to play an exhibition game before a Sugar Kings game.
B. Those fellas would have fit right in with the Oakland As of the early ’70s, what with all the facial hair.
A. I’ll say. Then a couple nights later, the Havana fans got a little raucous celebrating the Castro victory — they called it the 26th of July Movement. People shooting guns in the air, and the Sugar Kings shortstop and the third-base coach for the other team, the Rochester Red Wings, got nicked by bullets. The Rochester manager pulled his team from the field for safety.
B. Wow, pretty wild, kind of like the Disco Demolition Riot at Comiskey Park in 1979. You know you can buy replicas of Los Barbudos jerseys today. Pretty nice looking, too. But I bet Fidel doesn’t get a cut.
A. Well, the Sugar Kings’ last season in Havana was 1960. Things got really rocky between the White House and Castro, who was nationalizing U.S. companies in Cuba. Our government pressured the International League to pull out of Havana.
That broke the heart of Cuban fans, even Castro. He offered to pay the team’s debts. But the next year, the franchise was the Jersey City Jerseys, and it went belly up after one season.
B. Wonder if you can buy Jerseys jerseys today? Just wanted to say that.
A. Most likely. I always wondered how baseball became so popular in Cuba. Figured U.S. troops  must have introduced the game. Cuba became almost our colony after the Spanish-American War with our soldiers occupying the place.
B. Well, with this rain delay I was able to do a little research. And I’m sad to report you’re wrong.
A Well, it’s not the first time.
B. Seems the game was brought to Cuba in the 1860s by sailors and Cuban students returning from the U.S. Became immensely popular and a rallying point of anti-Spanish patriotism. After a failed revolution in 1869, Cubans were forbidden by Spanish authorities from attending baseball games.
A. Man, that is harsh.
B. Seems the natives liked watching baseball a lot more than going to bullfights. And that didn’t sit well with their Spanish overseers.
A. So the Cuban founding fathers preferred the old horsehide to the old cowhide?
B. I’ll let that go. Look, I think I see some blue sky. Yes, they’re taking to tarp off the field.
A. Finally, I’m ready for some beisbol.

Opening Day 2015 is April 5. The San Francisco Giants start the season April 6, visiting the Arizona Diamondbacks.

With the Obama administration’s effort to normalize U.S.-Cuba relations, Major League Baseball is looking into holding an exhibition game in 2016 between a U.S. team and the Cuban National Team.

In 1999, the Baltimore Orioles and Cuban National Team played two games, the first in Havana and the second in Baltimore. Each team won one game.


I realize I may be far more excited about the World Series, which starts this week, than many Americans. Already there are predictions the series will produce television ratings so low that the whole thing should be banished to the back of a minor-league bus rambling through the hinterlands.

But It is an intriguing matchup between Middle America and the Left Coast, as represented by the Kansas City Royals and the San Francisco Giants.

The Royals, whose fans have decked a decidedly red state in a prairie of blue (their uniforms are royal blue and cloud white), have captured the imagination of baseball cognoscenti throughout the land. They haven’t been to the World Series since 1985, and the current team plays defense with the speed, grace and will of Marvel super heroes.

The Giants, an orange-and-black mix of old hands, rookies, recycled pitchers and cool customers, are making a serious bid to become one of the greatest baseball dynasties of all time. They won it all in 2010 and 2012, and, by gosh, this is another even-numbered year, so the good vibes are vibrating for the team by the Bay.

Just the music that will be played around the edges of the game should be magical. Charlie Parker, the prophet of modern jazz, hailed from Kansas City, the destination of a thousand bands who’ve sung joyously of going to Kansas City.

San Francisco had its sound, and still has Tony Bennett singing about cable cars and stars. And yes, two members of the Grateful Dead likely will sing the National Anthem before one game with the Giants’ third-base coach. That’s just the way The City rolls.

And unlike the other two major sports, football and baseball, in which identified stars inevitably decide the outcome of contests for all the marbles, baseball’s World Series has a way of shining halos above the heads of the unlikeliest members on the 25-man rosters.

What other sport has a play as simple and, at the same time, as complex as the sacrifice bunt? It is the 120-year antithesis to the self-adulation that accompanies every sack in football and every alley-oop jam in basketball.

I could go on and on about the many dimensions of complexity just under the surface of a game where, at any moment, the players are either standing around or sitting on a sunken bench. But I won’t. Other writers and filmmakers have done it far better.

And again, the casual baseball fan’s two most common questions arising during the World Series — “Why do they spit and scratch themselves so much?” — will go unanswered.

But this World Series will keep baseballers in Northern California and the rest of the world transfixed over the next several days. And people who choose not to tune in, of course, won’t know what they are missing. Bush-leaguers.

My prediction: Giants in six.