I was thumbing through a photo album the other day, and came across a picture of the Little League team I was on when I was 10.
There are 16 of us in the photo – 14 kids and two adults. The kids are wearing blue T-shirts emblazoned with the name of our sponsor, a local hamburger joint called Robin’s Frosties.
The expressions on our faces range from forced grins to just-testified-before-the-grand-jury. (I was too distracted by the stupendous size of my ears in the photo to recall now whether I was a grinner or a material witness.)
My father is one of the adults in the photo. He was our coach that year, and a good one. It wasn’t that he was a baseball savant, or even liked the game that much – he was an inveterate golfer – but he was even-handed, funny and patient, and never failed to make sure we availed ourselves of the team sponsor’s products after the games.
I think my dad, who died 25 years ago, didn’t love baseball as fervently as I did because he didn’t get to play it much as a kid. When he was 8 or 9, he was stricken with polio, and for several years he walked only with braces or crutches.
Although he recovered, one of his legs was left a bit shorter than the other. He could hit the hell out of a golf ball, but running was not his strong suit, and there is a lot more running in baseball than in golf.
I mention all this because baseball season is again upon us. I particularly love baseball at the beginning of the season. It represents a renewal of hope, a revitalization of one’s sense of community, a reaffirmation that there is some sense and order to the universe – notwithstanding the idiocy of the designated hitter rule.
“Base-ball is our game: the American game,” the poet Walt Whitman is said to have said in 1888. “I connect it with our national character.”
So do I. Of all the major sports, baseball is the most truly democratic. There is no “running out the clock” as there is in football, wherein a team that is winning and has control of the ball can selfishly do nothing while the game ticks away.
There is no intentional fouling the other team as there is at the end of basketball games, wherein the trailing team desperately hacks at opposing players in order to send them to the free-throw line, with the feeble hope the shot will be missed and the ball regained.
No. In baseball, each team is guaranteed the same number of opportunities as its opponent. Each team is accorded the chance to score as many runs as it can before it records 27 outs. Each batter gets a minimum of three strikes; each pitcher begins his task the same 60 feet, 6 inches from home plate.
It is a humbling game. A pitcher can successfully deal with 26 hitters in a row – then lose the game on one unartful pitch to the 27th. A hitter can smash three home runs – then lose the game the fourth time up by striking out with the bases full and two out in the ninth, with his team trailing by a run.
“Baseball is the only field of endeavor where a man can succeed three times out of 10 and be considered a good performer,” observed Ted Williams. He was referring to the fact that a hitter who averages three hits every 10 at-bats – in baseball parlance a “.300 hitter” – is among the elite at his craft. (Williams knew whereof he spoke: He averaged .344 over a 19-year big-league career.)
But it is at the same time an exhilarating game.
“The greatest thrill in the world is to end the game with a home run and watch everyone walk off the field while you’re running the bases on air,” said the excellent Cleveland Indians third baseman Al Rosen.
It is a timeless game. Ever since the Pilgrims wobbled off the Mayflower, Americans have been playing versions of it, known variously as “one old cat,” “bittle-battle,” “stick ball,” “town ball” and “rounders.”
But the iteration of the game that came to be known as “base-ball” was born on the Elysian Fields, in Hoboken, N.J., on June 19, 1846. It was there that the New York Knickerbockers club squared off against a team called the New York Nine. They played under rules – nine-member teams, a diamond-shaped infield – devised by a bank teller and member of the Knicks’ team named Alexander Cartwright.
Cartwright’s rules caught on, and eventually evolved as the basis for what became our National Pastime. But making up the rules didn’t prove of much help to Cartwright’s team that fateful day in 1846. It seems some of the Knicks’ best players refused to go all the way from Manhattan to Hoboken. As a result, the Knickerbockers lost 23-1.
In one way or another, we have all tasted the bitter dregs of a 22-run defeat. And we have all floated around the bases after a game-winning homer, even if only vicariously.
As a player, I peaked about four years after the photo I mentioned was taken, although I continued to play the game through high school. But there has been no spring since then that my pulse hasn’t quickened at the sound of someone taking a cylindrical bat and hitting a round ball squarely, or the unmistakable “thwap!” of a blazing fast ball smacking into the catcher’s mitt.
It’s undeniable that there have been changes in the game. This year, for example, they are going to greatly expand the use of instant replay to help ensure the umpires get their calls right (an “improvement” of which I am dubious). The first two games of the major league season were played last week in, of all places, Australia.
And at Chase Field in Phoenix, they will be selling an 18-inch corndog, stuffed with bacon, cheese and jalapenos, plus a side of fries, for $25. (I’m pretty sure Robin’s Frosties offered no such delicacy.)
But these are trivial things. The essence of baseball endures. It is a thread that ties my present securely to my past. The season has begun, and I am a jug-eared 10-year-old pitcher/third baseman, kneeling on the dirt at the Mission Village Little League field. I am hopeful, determined – a little scared, too – but I am ready to play ball.
And win or lose, my dad is buying frosties after the game.