For Love of the Game, Part II


“People ask me what I do in winter when there’s no baseball. I’ll tell you what I do.
I stare out the window and wait for spring.”
– Rogers Hornsby, former MLB player, manager and coach

My love for the game of baseball began long ago when I was just a little girl listening with my grandpa to the St. Louis Cardinals working their magic on the radio. That love continued to blossom throughout my childhood when a backyard argument about strike zones sometimes turned ugly but was never enough to send either team stomping home because, after all, a game of baseball was by far the most fun to be had on a lazy summer afternoon. And what better way to spend a hot summer night than at a ballpark somewhere, chasing down fly balls under the lights while parents roared in the distance, sno-cones melted in the dugout and fireflies danced on the whispering breeze?

My passion for the sport flourished even more when my own sons picked up a bat and ball, from those early years of t-ball when the bat was almost as big as they were to those final years of high school baseball when their lean and limber physiques were ideally suited for acrobatic catches in the outfield and lightning-fast speed around the bases. My mother’s heart fluttered with pride with every tracked down fly ball in the gap, with every stolen base, with every perfectly executed suicide squeeze.

But my personal history with the game is just one of the many reasons why baseball has found a permanent place in my heart. Here are a few more reasons, and I would bet some of my fellow bleacher bums will agree with every one of them . . .

Baseball mirrors American history, the good and the bad. The game is an integral part of our national identity and has been since before the Civil War (pre-dating professional football and basketball by several decades). Its origins can be traced to the streets and vacant lots of Manhattan, with the first professional team, the New York Knickerbockers, organizing in 1845. In addition to being “punctual in their attendance,” players were also expected to “have the reputation of a gentleman,” and during the Knickerbockers’ first official game–a game they lost 23-1 to the New York Baseball Club in 1846–one player was fined six cents for the ungentlemanly act of cursing. (Source: Wikipedia)

Union soldiers are credited with popularizing baseball by carrying it to other parts of the country during the Civil War, and those soldiers shared the field with black freemen and emancipated slaves. By 1867 the sport had grown to over 400 “clubs” scattered throughout the country, with black players on many of those teams until a “gentlemen’s agreement” in 1887 banned future contracts with black players, an agreement that remained in effect until Jackie Robinson broke the color ban in 1947. Playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Robinson became the first black Major League player of the modern era, an example of integration pre-dating the Civil Rights Act by almost two decades.

Segregation hasn’t been baseball’s only black eye, though. Just as with the general population, the sport has occasionally been marred by other societal ills, particularly gambling and illegal drug use. In 1919, the “Black Sox Scandal” rocked the baseball world when it was discovered that eight players on the Chicago White Sox team threw the World Series–and baseball fans were disheartened once again years later when Pete Rose was banned from the game for life amidst accusations that he had bet against his own team, the Cincinnati Reds, when he was a player and manager. And while some players have had run-ins with the law over their illicit drug use away from the game, still others like Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Mark McGwire have come under scrutiny for accusations (and occasional admissions, sometimes after years of denial) of using performance-enhancing drugs. 

But baseball also has a long, rich history of good men doing good things. Some of the sport’s best players traded the ball field for the battlefield during World War II–Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams and Stan Musial among them–and many others served our country during the Korean and Vietnam wars. And while many people may argue that professional baseball players are grossly overpaid (and I sometimes agree), individual players as well as the league in general are known for donating considerable amounts of money and time to support such charitable organizations as the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, the Susan G. Komen Foundation, the Prostate Cancer Foundation, and the Make-A-Wish Foundation (there are many, many more).

Baseball is a relaxing sport. Okay, okay, I will admit there have been a few times–particularly when I was a mom on the sidelines–when my heart was exploding, sometimes in breathless fear for a downed player, sometimes in indignant rage over a missed call, and sometimes in sheer excitement over a last-inning, come-from-behind, underdog win. But for the most part, baseball is played at a leisurely pace in the crispness of a spring night or the idleness of a sultry summer afternoon when nine innings can last forever (and you really don’t mind if they do). Baseball isn’t ruled by the clock like most other sports, and I would much rather watch a tied baseball game that goes into extra innings than to suffer through the last five minutes of a basketball game when the winning team is stalling to run out the clock.

Critics of the game claim baseball is boring and that it can’t keep up with the pace of our busy lives–but maybe that’s exactly the point. When I’m sitting on the sidelines at the local ball field or sitting in the stands at the stadium, I can feel the warm sunshine on my face and the gentle breeze on the back of my neck, I can see mothers and fathers trading smiles with their children, I can indulge in a burnt kosher dog with sauerkraut and grilled onions because such indulgence a couple times a year won’t kill me, I can hear the crowds around me collectively cheering, groaning, singing–and in that small sliver of time, I can forget about everything on my “to do” list at home, I can escape the harsh realities of a crazy world, and I can breathe in, breathe out and just be.

In baseball, it’s not over ’til it’s over–and even then it’s not really over because there’s always tomorrow. I’m one of those die-hard fans who won’t leave the ballpark or turn off the television until that very last out because there’s always the possibility of something miraculous happening. When a basketball or football team starts the last quarter down by a large margin, the odds are stacked against it because the clock is always ticking, but in baseball that irrelevant clock is no match for the middle of the line-up stepping to the plate against a struggling bullpen, especially when 40,000 fans have their rally caps on. Anything can happen in a sport where each team has the same number of opportunities at bat and the same number of chances to score.

And if the home team doesn’t put another notch in its win column, then there’s almost always another chance the very next day. One loss isn’t devastating when regular season play includes 162 chances to win–we might go to bed disappointed, but we’ll wake up the next day with the belief that today’s pitching match-up will be in our favor and the certainty that our boys will be rattling the bats with runners in scoring position.

In baseball, size doesn’t matter . . . as much. With a few notable exceptions like Tyrone “Muggsy” Bogues and Anthony “Spud” Webb, professional basketball just doesn’t have much use for short guys, and by all accounts professional football is a big man’s league with even the shortest running backs on the team still packing a lot of meat on their bones to protect them from those 300-pound tackles. But baseball is the great equalizer. The biggest players might be the most likely to slam one out of the ballpark, but occasionally the smaller players do, too–and even if they’re not racking up homers, they’re still able to contribute, sometimes by bunting to advance the runner, sometimes by stealing their way around the bases, or sometimes by using their speed and agility to field the ball.

us1980-4

In January I was privileged to attend the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame induction ceremony and meet David Eckstein, one of my all-time favorite Cardinals.

At 5’7″ and 160 pounds, David Eckstein is a perfect example of a small guy who made it in the big leagues. When the St. Louis Cardinals won the 2006 World Series, it was Eckstein–and not slugger teammate Albert Pujols–who was named the series’ Most Valuable Player, proving that even the smallest guy on the team can still make a big difference when he has tremendous heart and the extraordinary talent and determination to go along with it.

More than any other sport, baseball is a team effort. Sure, there are stars on the diamond just as there are stars on the basketball court or on the football field. But while one star basketball player can score time and time again and the same football player can repeatedly run the ball into the end zone, the very best player on the baseball team only bats once in every nine times and only plays one position at a time. Baseball is not a one-man show, and for the team to be successful, every guy on the team has to contribute to the overall effort. It might have been impressive when Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points in a single game back in 1962 or Kobe Bryant scored 81 in 2006, but in my mind neither could have been as exciting as the 22-year-old rookie who just hit his first Major League homerun to give his team the lead.

Baseball is a game of beauty and joy. I’ve seen centerfielders make unbelievable, over-the-shoulder catches on the warning track, shortstops make diving, third-out catches that prevented the go-ahead run from scoring, infielders make amazing double (and occasionally even triple) plays that changed the momentum of the game, catchers make incredible pick-off throws to second and first, and power hitters end the game with a walk-off homer–and I have marveled at the poetic beauty of each one. And I have laughed and smiled and high-fived just like those high school boys on the field and those grown men in the dugout, those boys and men whose love for the game is obvious and whose exuberance is contagious.

I’m too old now to play the game myself. Even if my bifocal contacts would allow me to see one ball and not two coming at me from the pitcher’s mound and even if I could swing the bat in time to actually connect with the ball, I doubt I could ever make it to first base without pulling a muscle or running out of steam halfway there. But that doesn’t stop me from being one of the game’s biggest fans, cheering on my favorite team whether they’re lighting up the scoreboard or saving all their runs for some other day. Hope never dies in this game–at least not until October anyway, and we’re a long way from there.

Postscript: After tonight’s 4-3 win over the Philadelphia Phillies, my beloved St. Louis Cardinals are now 9-6 on the season.

“Well, you know I…I never got to bat in the major leagues.
I would have liked to have had that chance. Just once.
To stare down a big league pitcher. To stare him down,
and just as he goes into his windup, wink.
Make him think you know something he doesn’t. That’s what I wish for.
Chance to squint at a sky so blue that it hurts your eyes just to look at it.
To feel the tingling in your arm as you connect with the ball.  To run the bases,
stretch a double into a triple, and flop face-first into third,
wrap your arms around the bag. That’s my wish, Ray Kinsella. That’s my wish.
And is there enough magic out there in the moonlight to make this dream come true?”
–Dr. Archibald “Moonlight” Graham in the movie,
Field of Dreams 

uscardsAt a Cardinals game last year with my middle son and husband . . .

baseballAnd one of my current favorite players, third baseman David Freese, hitting a grounder down the third base line in a game against the Chicago Cubs in 2011 . . .

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About icedteawithlemon

I have recently retired from a 30-year career in education in one of the best school districts in the world. I hope to spend my second life reading, writing, photographing, traveling, biking, cheering on my favorite baseball team (the St. Louis Cardinals), and soaking up glorious sunshine. In my spare time I enjoy playing with my pet tarantulas, trying out new flavors of chewing gum, and knitting socks for prison inmates. I'm almost positive that in a past life I was one of the Seven Dwarfs (most likely "Grumpy"), and in my next life I'm going to be either a taste tester for Hershey's or a model for Victoria's Secret's new line, "Bloomers for Boomers." I want to travel country back roads, singing Vanilla Ice songs at every karaoke bar and rating bathroom cleanliness at every truckstop. And someday I plan to own a private beach where skinny girls aren't allowed. I want to be a writer when I grow up. "Our truest life is when we are in dreams awake."--Henry David Thoreau
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16 Responses to For Love of the Game, Part II

  1. Norman says:

    Honey, what is Mr. Eckstein’s right hand doing? Good bit of writing and enjoy the history you included. Brings back so many memories with the boys and taking you to your first major league game. Many more good times to come following our Cardinals.

  2. This is such a great post, and beautifully written. Thank you so much for sharing!

    • Thank you, and thank you for stopping by! What a very nice compliment coming from someone who writes specifically about the game–I just checked out your site, and I’m quite certain I’ll be checking it out again (loved the quote and the William Carlos Williams poem). And after reading your “About” section, I realize we have much in common–and I encourage you to keep rooting for those Royals. Someday, their day will come.

  3. Mrs E. What a great read!! I may not be as vocal as some, but my love for the game is just as strong. There is nothing better than sitting at a stadium – major, minor or little league – listening to crack of the bat, and getting that rush as your team or favorite player(s) makes a great run, play, out, etc. I am a die-hard Royal’s fan, faithful to the core, but a game is a game and there’s nothing better than the ‘Thrill of the Game’!!!

    • Also, love your last quote… Field of Dreams pretty much sums it up!!

      • It does, doesn’t it? I LOVE baseball movies, too–Field of Dreams, Bull Durham, Major League, The Sandlot, Eight Men Out, and my favorite movie of all, The Natural. And I’m looking forward to adding 42 to the list. 🙂

    • Thank you, Miss Donna! And I agree–there’s no better way to spend an afternoon or evening than sitting in a stadium somewhere cheering on my team. It’s one of the few places where I can actually relax and “let go.” Good luck to your Royals!

  4. liliofthefield27 says:

    Okay, before I proceed any further, I must say that the question of what Eckstein’s right hand was doing piqued my ever lovin’ curiosity, so I took another look, and decided it’s purely innocent. But..oh, Karen, he’s cute! I wouldn’t mind spending time out in the dugout with him…well…if it were 1980 again, that is. Your husband and son are two handsome fellers.

    That said, I very much enjoyed this two-parter of yours. Well done and delicious, as was your kosher dog, no doubt. In regards to the origins of the game, there is an on-going “discussion” between Canada and the USA over which country first shouted “Play Ball!” In Canada, the first game was played, I believe, in 1838 in the southwestern region of Ontario. Who knows? The important thing is the legacy; the decades of joy, sportsmanship and team spirit baseball has brought to Canucks, Yanks, Confederates, and multitudes around the world…players and spectators alike.

    You now have me itching to watch A League of Their Own tonight. Hmmm..I think I shall.

    • Thank you, Lillian! And yes, despite my husband’s suggestion to the contrary, it was a purely innocent moment between an old lady and a ballplayer young enough to be her son. And if the Canadians want to claim creation of the game, I don’t mind (although I do have my doubts). 🙂

      A League of Their Own is a great movie! When I was researching the blog, I came across this interesting tidbit on the women’s baseball league during World War II (from Wikipedia): “During spring training the girls were required to attend Helena Rubinstein’s evening charm school classes. The proper etiquette for every situation was taught, and every aspect of personal hygiene, mannerisms and dress code was presented to all the players. In an effort to make each player as physically attractive as possible, each player received a beauty kit and instructions on how to use it. As a part of the leagues ‘Rules of Conduct’, the girls were not permitted to have short hair, smoke or drink in public places, and they were required to wear lipstick at all times.” Can you imagine?!

      • What the…!? No, I cannot begin to imagine. Unbelievable. Blatant sexism was certainly alive and well back then…both in the change rooms and in the minds of the team “managers”, who were totally out in left field! Grrrrrrrr.

      • It’s probably a good thing that you and I were not around back then–I can’t speak for you, but I’m pretty sure I would have been kicking and screaming (and cussing and clawing) if anyone had tried that hard to put me in “my” place. 🙂

  5. bronxboy55 says:

    Another wonderful piece. I can’t imagine there are many books about baseball written by women. Have you considered it?

    Also, do you know about vintage baseball? It’s mostly in the Midwest, in some of those A-League-of-Their-Own towns. They wear the old-style uniforms, use the tiny gloves, and play by the original 19th-century rules. They even thank the umpire at the end of each game. I’d love to see them play someday. I bet you would, too.

    • Thank you, Charles. A book about baseball, written by a woman, perhaps for other women? An interesting concept. Unlike so many of the other baseball fanatics I know, I’m really not interested in individual or team stats, but then I doubt too many women are. I would be more inclined to focus on the history and passion and beauty of the game. Hmmm …

      Honestly, I had never heard of vintage baseball, but a quick Google led to some very intriguing information. I also discovered there is a vintage team in St. Louis–now, if I could make a weekend visit to the big city and spend one day as a spectator at a vintage game and another day cheering on the Cardinals, surely that would be a delightful taste of baseball heaven.

      I’m not sure if you’re a fan of baseball movies, but I’m pretty sure I’ve seen every one ever made, and this past weekend I added 42 to the list. Great historical perspective!

  6. bronxboy55 says:

    Off the top of my head, here’s a list of the baseball movies we own. I’ve watched all of them at least ten times each: A League of Their Own, Field of Dreams, Eight Men Out, Mr. Baseball, Fever Pitch, The Sandlot, Angels in the Outfield, The Rookie, and 61. I’ve also seen The Natural, Hardball, Bang the Drum Slowly, Bad News Bears, For Love of the Game, Mr. 3000, Cobb, and just last week, 42. I’ve seen others, but they’re too forgettable to mention.

    • Wow–impressive! I could add Moneyball to the list (not a typical baseball movie but still interesting, I thought), but I have not seen 61 or Cobb (I will rectify that). The Natural and Field of Dreams are two of my all-time favorite movies (two of the few movies I have seen over and over and over), and anyone who doesn’t love The Sandlot cannot profess to love baseball, childhood or life in general.

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