It’s April – Play Ball???

  • Posted: April 20, 2020
  • Category: Blog
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And it’s April, another baseball season begins – Whoops!! We’re still living in that Twilight Zone episode! It’s only the middle of April and I am already experiencing withdrawal. Not necessarily hallucinations, but I struggle to keep my fingers from shaking as I type. I’m starting to fantasize about just walking into one of those “dispensaries” and getting some “nerve” medicine.

In past Aprils, my family would give a fake sigh while smirking, shaking their collective heads at my fascination. Hard to believe, but in my entire family, counting in-laws, outlaws and Indian scouts, only I and one son-in-law like baseball. I have heard it all for years now; boring, slow, uninteresting, too long, etc.

True enough if you compare it to hockey, but at least baseball has rules that make sense. What exactly is “icing” and what is the point anyway? Also true if you compare it to basketball, but then one might just as well ask – “Is Pro Wrestling a sport?” Baseball umpires call strikes on Mike Trout. When was the last time a referee called LeBron James for “traveling”?

We can agree that football is more action packed – for those ten seconds they actually play between all the huddles, timeouts, chain moving, etc. And as for soccer, the “sport” of the New Century, you’re kidding about boring, slow, uninteresting, right?

Baseball is a game of character and of characters. The ability to pitch a baseball or hit a baseball is a quixotic gift handed out to random human beings. If you doubt the existence of God’s sense of humor, look at baseball players. Where else can you see a star, a man well into middle age, possessed of a pronounced belly, honestly earned by exhaustive study of the brewer’s craft.  Another player, appearing to find the walk to and from the mound serious physical exercise, throws pitches that are unhittable.

Baseball has players so short that they can walk between the legs of basketball’s giraffes, but these height challenged players earn eight figure salaries because they can hit the baseball. Other players, so out of shape that they can barely manage to run around the bases, are stars because they can hit home runs. The talent in baseball comes in all shapes and sizes. For someone like myself, who missed out on size and athletic ability, I find this state of affairs comforting.

It must be said that in recent years baseball players are more shaped and sculpted by the weight room than the bar stools of bygone eras. Yet as they have grown more conditioned, more professionally athletic, they have grown more fragile. While this new generation of physical specimens is impressive on the field, their long absences recovering from “injuries” makes me long for the days of the more “rounded” players. Time may well prove advances in physical conditioning to be counterproductive.

Baseball – a game of character, and of characters. The length of the season and the measured rituals of play allow us to come to know the personalities of the people in the game. Baseball is a team sport, but the play is isolated; mano a mano. It is power contending with skill, it is speed vying with subtlety, it is fractions of an inch measured in microseconds.

In the world of sports, size, strength, speed, endurance are the difference makers. But in baseball, it’s not always in the ways we expect. What other sport captures the truth of Ecclesiastes so well?

“ I saw that under the sun

the race is not to the swift

nor the battle to the strong

neither yet bread to the wise

nor wealth to the skillful

nor favor to men of ability

but time and chance happen to them all”

Modern cameras, HDTV broadcasts and the regular routines of the game let us see into the characters of tired and stressed men in their moments of decision. We can look into the eyes of a pitcher in a jam, sweat pouring down his face while the stadium thunders with noise. In one pitcher’s eyes, we see barely controlled panic and the coming meltdown. At another time and in another man we see only eyes of grey steel with gritted teeth. On the cusp of a turning point, we see the bit player rise to the occasion and the star stumble in toothless failure. Character matters.

It is in the nature of boys to seek clues in becoming a man. In fact it was revealed character; back in the mists of my early teens, that brought me to my life long fascination with baseball – or to be more precise, with the New York Yankees. I am a Yankee fan. I have always been a Yankee fan.

I, and those who know me, find it more than a little strange, as I am otherwise a devotee of lost causes and hopeless rebellions. To have a life long allegiance to a team from New York, a team that many call the “Evil Empire”, goes against my biases on so many levels. It needs explanation.

My affair with baseball and the Yankees began in that dim past when I saw an old news clip of Lou Gehrig making his farewell speech at Yankee Stadium. Shortly after that I saw a movie, Pride of the Yankees, with Gary Cooper as Lou Gehrig. That picture of a man, knowing he is dying of an incurable disease that will rob him of every last shred of dignity, that man humbly saying that he is “the luckiest man on the face of the earth”. It affected me. I never forgot it. As a teenager and young man, Lou Gehrig was a model to me of what a man should be.

Lou Gehrig’s remembered moment only grew more meaningful as time passed, as I grew in my appreciation of the game, its players and teams – past and present. Lou Gehrig was the Iron Horse, the solid quiet man who modeled integrity and batted cleanup for Murderer’s Row – the key spot in most powerful lineup in the history of the game. Lou Gehrig, the son of German immigrants and a faithful husband, who played 2,130 consecutive games in the shadow of that larger than life favorite of the sportswriters and nightclub owners – Babe Ruth.

Time has passed since then. Life and its compromises have worn the shine from a teenager’s idol worship. Spending a career in the backrooms of the butcher shop and seeing how the sausage is made changes a person. But the Yankees have remained, like an old friend whose reminisces evoke echoes of a past forever gone. Spending time with that friend sometimes allows me to remember the way it was.

Sometimes when I watch a game, I can remember sitting in a stark construction camp cafeteria listening to the radio, lonely and stressed on a jobsite deep inside Mexico when Reggie Jackson hit three home runs rallying the Yankees to a come from behind World Series win over the Dodgers. I can remember listening to the radio on a hot summer evening in Southern California, watching my baby daughter Suzanne, while Louisiana Lightning, otherwise known as Ron Guidry, my favorite pitcher of all time, struck out 18 men.

I can remember a warm August afternoon at a game in Kansas City with my family and some friends, watching a skinny young shortstop named Derek Jeter warm up in front of us. I can remember watching a game in Anaheim, sitting between my mother and my wife, joking about the old fat man, Bartolo Colon, who was unhittable that afternoon.

There is a lot about the Yankees and baseball I find obnoxious; high ticket prices and tedious security checks, high priced aging stars, the truly corrupt practices of Latin American talent grooming, the looming legalization of betting, etc. The owners of the Yankees in particular seem to have managed the synthesis of virtually all of the unattractive attributes of New York myopic excess and a Borg-like corporate management.

But somehow through all the crap, they have my loyalty. Where else can I close my eyes and see that humble man, the Iron Horse, with downcast eyes standing in front of a microphone, his words of gratitude echoing through that stadium?


4 Responses to “It’s April – Play Ball???”

  1. Ed Holub says:

    Your article brings back many fond memories – playing sandlot ball as a kid, watching the Houston Colt 45s
    in their temporary ramshackle stadium, seeing Mickey Mantle during an exhibition game hit a ball that touched
    the top of the new Astrodome. Then the debate: who was better, Mantle or Maris? Also there were baseball
    cards, and the personalities of the broadcasters. My brother and rivaled about who the best players were.
    I don’t know how long I can hold out either to see the Rockies and other teams “play ball”. It maybe a while.

  2. Phil Kinney says:

    I too am sad to see that baseball has yet to start this season. I have loved the game since my Dad and brother and the next door neighbors used to play in a vacant lot across the street. I like football but love baseball. Baseball and fishing were two things my Dad and I did together. I hope this is just a delay in the season. I am anxious to hear once again: “PLAY BALL”

  3. Mark Madden says:

    Hey bill, I sent this article to my baseball player son, who is also a Yankee fan

  4. Judy Hoxworth says:

    We have the Pioneers here in Gering now…college kids that come here and stay with families while playing at a new diamond built especially for them! Don’t know all the details but we’ve gone several times for the last two years and I’ve advanced from my gosh could this be any slower to actually enjoying all the fun they have created making us feel like we’re at a Rockies game. We just heard they’re scheduled to start on time here! My uncle also suffered with Lou Gehrig’s disease

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