The crack of the bat; the thud in the mitt; smells of peanuts and cracker jacks; mustarded hot dogs washed down with cold beers. The fever of it! Baseball, America’s brain child, after a long winter, true harbinger of Spring, you’re back and I’m a young boy again, with dawn’s early light, heading for alleys, looking for buddies, looking for game.
Like eating Cheerios, I fed on baseball, the daily radio broadcasts pouring out their litany in days when TV was but a rumor. Pa, ensconced in his leather chair, two virtues in exchange for his addiction to booze, a love for the game and a love for the news, rituals of redemption taking root in his child.
Growing-up in Philly’s waterfront Fishtown, tedious streets of inert row houses and white stoops; scarcely a tree, never a park, we gave it no thought, adopting stick ball and banging our hits off factory facades, in the same way Ruth and Gehrig began their own long journey, Boys of Summer, with every stroke, tapping our dreams of something better than asphalt heat and danger-laden streets.
Philly sported two teams then, the A’s and Phillies. I knew the player names readily, reiterated by baseball cards we’d get with our bubblegum and trade with each other, sitting on stoops on sultry summer evenings.
I remember the Whiz Kids winning the pennant in 1950, the euphoria sweeping Philly like an exuberant wind. They played the World Series afternoons back then.
When I was twelve, I learned how to take the El and find my way to Shibe Park to watch the A’s play and usually lose. After the game, I’d linger around the gate for autographs and recall, as if yesterday, wide-eyed like a boy hooking his first trout, the thrill of Dave Philley being my first and, crazy kid that I was, grabbing his arm to touch one of the gods.
Baseball had an innocence back then–an absence of big money, drugs, and player mobility. It was everything good that we’d like to be good again. I liked the high mounds, the pitchers around for most of the game, so different from the formula of 100 pitches in vogue today. It’s hard to win twenty games now, and we’ll never see 30 wins again. Back then, teams like the Yankees sometimes sported three pitchers with twenty wins by season end.
Ted Williams batted 406 in 1941. He did it without the sacrifice fly added later, which means he batted for an even higher average, going by today’s rules.
I remember Jackie Robinson’s coming into baseball and democratizing the game.
With sadness now, there’s been a sharp decline, after the long struggle, in African-American players these days. Thank goodness for the Caribbean ball players who keep baseball from reverting to a white man’s game.
But there are changes that have made baseball better such as the playoffs and, in my opinion, the designated hitter.
What keeps my loyalty is the nature of the skills baseball demands. Every position features its own requisites not easily acquired. Baseball has few prodigies ready right out of high school. Generally you hone your skills over several seasons, playing college or minor league ball. You learn by doing to play the game well.
If every position has its own repertoire, no less challenging is swinging the bat, with fast balls clocking 90 mph and more, mixed with curves, sliders and off speed pitches. There are eight players in front of you and you need to hit the ball where they aren’t, a tall order the very best players achieve only a third of the time.
What I like better than anything else is the stardom in reach for any player in any game at any moment: the clutch hit, the stolen base, the home run, the pitcher’s shutout, the fielding gem; the sheer democracy of it, unlike any other sport I know.
Every at bat is the old West renewed, batter against pitcher, in strategy based on probability.
I relish the end game with its relief scenario. Can the “fireman” put out the fire and save the game? A duel indeed. Good relievers require ice in their veins.
Baseball, more than any other sport, comes down to numbers, or record-keeping, with the Hall of Fame a pantheon of its greatest, and a way of measuring.
Football and basketball, today’s popular action sports, may enjoy the public eye but, for me, I revel in baseball’s ritual, the mindness in it, the individuality of it; the the crack of the bat, the thud in the mitt; smells of peanuts and crackerjacks, mustarded hot dogs washed down with cold beers. The sheer Americana of it!