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Senior Correspondent

Snagging That Blue Darter for the Final Out

My Dad told a story how he had once seen Shoeless Joe Jackson playing in an industrial league game out at Cone Field in Greensboro sometime in the 1920s or so, years after he was banned from organized baseball for his role in the 1919 Black Sox Scandal. Said he could still hit the horsehide like a man afire, and throw rifle-shots back into the infield after gathering in way-back flies in the outfield.

I dunno if there's any reliable record of Jackson playing in Greensboro, but I heard the same thing from folks who keep tabs on Greensboro history. But I do recall that Dizzy Dean used to use a phrase that supposedly came from someone describing a Shoeless Joe Jackson line drive: a blue darter. Wikipedia, drawing upon the definition of Mike Whiteford, has this to say: "The term 'blue darter' is a baseball term referring to a low line drive that 'speeds viciously through the air, as though it were propelled by a blue gas flame.' The term came to be associated with the line drives hit by Shoeless Joe Jackson and was popularized by ballplayer and sportscaster Dizzy Dean." 

In August on a Sunday evening, along about dusk, I felt like a 7-year-old kid again, watching Washington Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman snag a genuine blue darter that was rocketing to his right near the third base line. Zimmerman went airborne, horizontal, and, outstretched quicker than the hiccups, snared the ball and ended a wonderful baseball game as the struggling Nats beat the Philadelphia Phillies 6-0 for their first-ever three-game sweep of the Phils in Washington. And then Pitcher Stephen Strasburg, who had just won his first complete-game shutout in the major leagues as more than 32,000 people in the stands went crazy, tipped his cap to Zimmerman and his magnificent catch. Good God Almighty, you ought to have seen it. 

About 60 years ago, in 1953, see, I was planning on a big-league career. Preferably with the Brooklyn Dodgers, but anywhere would be fine as long as it wasn't with the Yankees. I had heroes all over the place — Brooklyn's Edwin "Duke" Snider my favorite. Pitcher Bob "Rapid Robert" Feller with the Cleveland Indians. Third baseman Jackie Robinson of the Dodgers. We didn't have a TV then and rarely but sometimes were able to tune in a game on the radio. But we pored over the stats in the papers and longed for the day when the Dodgers would win and the Yankees wouldn't. There weren't many of them, seemed like.

Third base was my position, though I really wanted to be a pitcher. I could throw fast but had no idea where it was going. So I clung to the notion that I could field the ball and get it to first in time. Did a few times — sometimes having to swat the ball down before I could get a grip on it. And once snagging a not-quite-blue line drive to my right. Those shots seemed to come at you like little white bullets. And once on a bad hop I liked to have choked to death on a wad of Double Bubble that I swallowed when the ball up and popped me in the cheek.

So when the Phillies' Kevin Frandsen belted that blue darter at Zimmerman Sunday evening, my heart skipped three beats. I could only see the contrail of that ball before Zimmerman snapped it up and stomped the Phillies flat for the final time. Just exhilarating.

It's hard to feel like a kid again when the knees ache daily and you have to run hot water on your hands to make a fist some mornings and there's always something reminding you of the toll of 67 years of hard use. But some close friends and I had been planning for a couple of months to get up to Washington to see a game, and by chance we landed on Sunday's 5 p.m. game with the Phillies. Could not have picked a better time to sneak away from the hills, meet up with new friends and sample the fare: cold beer, hot dogs, salted peanuts, and a lot of other things our doctors probably wouldn't be too happy about. Well, she should have been there, dammit. I 'spect she would have enjoyed it, too.

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