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Writing on The Wall


THE MARLINS MOVED in their fences this season, as someone is always doing somewhere, because walls are never quite right and seldom welcome. Something there is that doesn't love a wall. Playoff teams have their backs against them, marathon runners hit the proverbial one, and Brooklyn Dodgers outfielder Pete Reiser so frequently ran into the wall at Ebbets Field that he helped give rise to the warning track. Walls come with warnings because only two things can happen when you're faced with one: You break the wall (see Kool-Aid Man) or the wall breaks you (Humpty Dumpty).

Even the most beloved wall in sports is called the Monster. The next most famous one, at Wrigley Field, is hidden by ivy. At Shibe Park in Philadelphia, A's owner Connie Mack commissioned a wall to keep apartment dwellers from watching the games for free. That wall and all those like it are called "spite fences." As Robert Frost would not have put it: Good fences spite good neighbors.

Walls seem inherently evil. Jim Courier hit tennis balls against a handball wall in Dade City, Fla., as an eight-year-old and said, "I hated that wall. It never missed."

But that wall also helped Courier become world No. 1. The Barcelona wizard Neymar learned soccer while kicking a ball against a wall in Praia Grande, Brazil. Carl Yastrzemski subtitled his autobiography Baseball, the Wall and Me, casting himself for posterity—as often happened literally—in the shadow of the Green Monster.

Few men outside prison have spent as much time contemplating a wall as Jim Abbott. Born without a right hand, Abbott pitched lefthanded against the wall of his end-unit townhouse in Flint, Mich., for hours as a kid. "It was a brick wall, and I drew a strike zone on it in chalk," he says. "Behind me the next building had facing windows, so there was also pressure to catch the ball." And so Abbott honed his famous glove switch by throwing a rubber ball and fielding its odd caroms, the wall doing what walls have always done for children in the summertime: "It filled up a lot of dead hours."

Without walls there'd be no place to hang the Mona Lisa, and Pink Floyd would have nothing to sing about. And yet walls are wildly unpopular. Every house hunter on HGTV, nattering on about an "open-concept kitchen," wants to tear them out. The Mets moved them in at Citi Field in 2011, and again last year. In between, the Mariners moved theirs. Walls, by design, are divisive. And so there's a Biblical impulse to see walls come tumbling down, from Jericho to John Mellencamp.

Pitchers are especially fond of tearing down walls, Abbott excepted. Kevin Brown, Brad Penny and Doyle Alexander are among the many pitchers who injured themselves punching out a wall. As a rookie, Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper swung his bat at a wall, which splintered the bat, which cut his face. In every single instance, they fought the wall and the wall won.

Of course, some deserve to be fought. Without getting into politics, Lionel Messi's glorious bending free kick for Argentina against the U.S. in the Copa América semifinal in Houston on June 21 demonstrated the utter pointlessness—the foolish hubris—of building a defensive wall in Texas.

But other walls are a work of art, even without a Banksy or a Basquiat to paint them. Three summers ago Abbott returned to his wall in Flint. "It didn't seem any bigger or smaller than I remember," he says, "but it did have a lonely feel. For me, there was always a bit of finding my way in the world, and throwing a ball at the wall helped me with that. I needed the quiet—not on a playground, not in a classroom, not with a parent or my brother—just me throwing a ball at a wall."

Many years later, taking the mound in pinstripes at Yankee Stadium, where he no-hit the Indians in 1993, Abbott couldn't help but think about playing Little League in Flint and those solitary summer hours spent dreaming in the yard. "I did think about that wall," he says, "because it was just so improbable."

In sports and in life there's a Biblical impulse to see walls come tumbling down, from Jericho to John Mellencamp.

What's the next sports wall that needs to fall?

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