“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.
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