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Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball . . .

. . .the rules and realities of the game,” goes one of the most famous quotes in baseball history if not all of American history. Few people though remember the next words in Jacques Barzun’s 1954 book God’s Country and Mine: A Declaration of Love Spiced with a Few Harsh Words: “and do it by watching first some high school or small-town teams” (p.159).
Forgetting momentarily that I fear baseball is what this country used to be and football is what it has become, yesterday afternoon I took the advice of Barzun, the transplanted Frenchman and social and literary critic who is still active at the age of 100, and went out to Central Park to witness the last two undefeated PSAL teams (Public Schools Athletic League) in New York City battle for bragging rights for the borough of Manhattan. After some early sloppy play by both defending city champion George Washington and its up-and-coming rival Norman Thomas, the game turned into a thriller that was decided in the bottom of the ninth inning on a suicide squeeze bunt, a play that warmed the heart of this believer in fundamental aggressive baseball.

I pictured Branch Rickey seated among the baseball gods with a bag of peanuts and binoculars being very pleased, for he loved competitive baseball at any level. Rickey once chided Kenesaw Mountain Landis, baseball’s first commissioner and fierce but largely unsuccessful foe of Rickey’s vast farm system, for not having done more to help baseball at the high school grass roots. The Ferocious Gentleman was particularly distressed that not long before Lou Gehrig’s untimely passing in 1941, the Iron Horse’s New York high school alma mater Commerce had given up baseball and Landis seemed unconcerned.

High school baseball has never regained a great following in New York but George Washington is a perennial powerhouse, a school that lists Rod Carew and Manny Ramirez as part of its heritage (I don’t say “graduates” because Manny never finished high school). Yesterday with a few major league scouts in attendance on a sunny but chilly day, several of the Washington Trojans hit sky high major league pop ups and foul balls but the Thomas Tigers had enough good pitching and competent outfield play to keep their rivals in check until the deciding squeeze bunt.

Both teams feature many Dominican-born players with Thomas having the added diversity of a Haitian-born head coach Nerva Jean Pierre. Washington is coached by Steve Mandl who wears #32 in honor of the Brooklyn Lafayette High legend Sandy Koufax. He gets a chance for revenge tomorrow on the school’s Washington Heights home field and both teams could meet again in the playoffs starting late this month. In past years either old Yankee Stadium or the demolished Shea Stadium hosted the final. The spiffy Brooklyn Cyclones Class A Keyspan Park at Coney Island has been the site recently for the championship game but there are rumors that faced with public relations disasters at their pricey new stadiums either the Mets or the Yankees could come through with a hosting offer. Wherever the final is played, the path through the playoffs should be gratifying to watch as these earnest young athletes on the cusp of adulthood try to meet the challenges of baseball in their distinctive ways. The most successful ones will undoubtedly be in Branch Rickey’s ever-astute words those who “crown their talent with masterful technique.” -- Lee Lowenfish, author, BRANCH RICKEY: Baseball's Ferocious Gentleman
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