June 08, 2012

Do You Send Him?

When they had the strike that killed the World Series, and then the steroid thing, and all of that, I lost it on baseball like a lot of other people. For years I spent my summers just waiting for football to start up again. Spent the summers barely paying attention to the game. And if the teams that made it to the World Series were interesting maybe I'd watch then. Maybe. But that was it.

You know when I was 6 it was 1959 and of course that was the year the city of Chicago blew the air raid sirens on the night the Sox won the pennant in Cleveland. And I was big into baseball cards. Baseball cards were spread out on the front porch, divided up into teams, carefully rubber-banded, and if a guy was traded during the season he'd get moved to the right team. You'd trade your "doubles" for cards you didn't have and on some summer days you'd put the cards in order of the lineup in the newspaper. Then the first place team was put on top and so on.

There'd be pick-up games every day. Basically three or four guys on a side; pitcher's hands out, right field is foul. No walks. Yes strikeouts. We'd get a white rubber ball from Harold's candy store and march on over to the concrete school yard at St. Mary's and get into it. "I don't want Joey on my team." Etc...

In those days WGN did all the home games for both teams. The Cubs and Sox were never in town at the same time (they still schedule it that way) and whoever was in town the WGN crew with its cheesy video overlays and dorky Jack Brickhouse would call the game, capturing "baseball headlines as they are being made." WGN radio always started their broadcasts (Cubs) with this thing (don't spend a lot of time on that, it's really 50's schmaltz). So there was always a ball game.

My Dad played shortstop for Lane Tech and was in the same high school infield with Phil Cavaretta. My dad played short and I'm told he was scouted, but he had to drop out of school because of the Depression. Cavaretta went to the Hall of Fame. But my dad was raised in a tavern his father owned. So he knew all the bartenders in the neighborhood, and one gave him this Hamm's Beer scoreboard with turn dials for all the innings and teams, and the Hamm's bear with a baseball cap - the kind of thing they'd put up in locals taverns for decoration or something. And on summer days we weren't playing a game I'd have the ballgame on and keep diligent track of the inning-by-inning score so that I could show him when he got home.

Of course I played little league when we moved out of the city - and that was where I saw the first signs that maybe I'd be a better fan than a player. This was later confirmed my freshman year in high school. Couldn't hit a curve OR a fastball. So I joined the theater group instead. But baseball was always there.

As years went on the games were broadcast home and away on different channels And before I was married when I was working nights if they were playing in California I'd get home and just pray the Sox (or, okay, Cubs too) game was still on so I could catch a few innings. Yes, even stoned out of my mind. Toking up just got you more into the strategy of it, see?

I could hang on every pitch like a true denizen. Do you send the runner on 2 and 1 or wait for 3 and 1 when you know he's got to put one in there. 2 and 1 is a little surprise. Better be a good base stealer. I'd sit there like the manager - every pitch count meant a different turn of possibilities.

And this was what I lost when, as cynicism and out of whack salaries and cheating and the true story of the assholes who owned clubs came to light, and expansion seemed to dissipate the talent on the field. I let it spoil all that I had once. I let it creep into my psyche and destroy my heritage and a whole entire part of my childhood. Maybe the biggest part.

And now I'm back. I've been back since around 2000 but even then it wasn't like now. In 2000 i was just getting my feet wet again. Now I'm all in. If there's a game on I'm watching it. I catch a few innings of a game if they're playing a day game (Cubs or Sox, so shoot me) before I shlep in to work.

And I find that the people who also used to have baseball in their lives, and no longer do, are as bitter about it as I was - but something else too. They miss it. What's more they know they're missing it. I'm not talking about people who were never in to it, I'm talking about guys like myself who did nothing but baseball between the ages of 6 and 11 and then dropped it. They know they're missing something even if they can't put their finger on it.

And the funny thing is that baseball forgives. You show up at a game and it's like you never left. The players go about their business of setting themselves in the box, tugging their shirts, wiggling their pitching arm and all the while you're sitting there... "If he can't bend that curveball he's going to get popped." "One more in that spot and this guy's going to crush it." "I don't get why the outfield is shaded to the left so much on this guy. That's a tip-off they're going to keep the ball outside." "Well he's not a dead pull hitter." "The count's 2 and 1, do you send him?"


B.E. Earl said...

Great post.

I never really left the game for an extended period of time. My first real memory comes from the 1971 All-Star Game. I became a Yankee fan shortly after that even though the Mets were the only real game in town at the time. Can you believe that? Becoming a Yankee fan BECAUSE they were the underdogs and the worst team in town? The work stoppage in 94/95 hurt, but my team was back in a big way the following year. So I didn't really lose much steam even then.

Right now I'm reading R.A. Dickey's memoir, and he's pretty much my favorite player in the game right now. Amazing story and seemingly a helluva guy. Watching Knucksie take the ball every 5th day and dominate like he is doing right now is some of the most fun baseball has to offer right now.

Or watching Aroldis Chapman pitch. Or Bryce Harper hit. Or Mike Trout run the bases. Or Giancarlo Stanton hitting bombs.

PS - There is a kid named Billy Hamilton running ragged over the minor leagues right now. On pace for 160 SB in 150 games. One. Six. Zero. Amazing. And he has that name which some baseball fans might recall. Hall of Famer, Billy Hamilton led the majors in career SB until Lou Brock came along. I love the coincidence. If someone is going to steal 100 bases in a season again, it should be a guy named Billy Hamilton. Not too many guys named Arlie "The Freshest Man in Baseball" Latham these days, so Billy Hamilton will have to do.

sybil law said...

Thanks to the fantasy baseball, I've gotten more into baseball this year than ever before, even though I clearly SUCK at the fantasy stuff.
One of my favorite memories is of being a kid in the car, after a long day training (horseback riding), and falling asleep to the sound of the Reds games on the radio. Windows down and Joe Nuxhall's voice. Aaaahhh...

Brian said...

Great post.

Some of my earliest memories are of being crammed into my grandparents' den--a room that was maybe 14 x 14 feet at the outside, just big enough for two rocking chairs, a small sofa, and an old gigantic TV with a small screen... but most importantly, the only room in the house with air conditioning in central Georgia in the summer--with some combination of my grandparents, my parents, my aunt and uncle, sister, and four cousins (there's no way it could have been all of us at once, right?) watching Braves games on TBS, back when it was still a UHF channel you had to have an aerial on the roof to get that far outside of Atlanta.

And you know what? I don't think baseball's ever been better than that for me.