I’ve written before about my love for baseball, so forgive me if I repeat myself. But this summer I may have watched more baseball than any other summer of my life, so it’s been on my mind a lot.
I don’t know the answer to “why baseball.” I was born at the perfect time and place for my “hometown” team to be Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine, World Series champions in 1975 and 1976. But I was already a baseball fan by then, dreaming of playing in the bigs without ever realizing girls…just didn’t grow up to do that. I had my scaled-down Johnny Bench bat which I eventually batted to pieces from sheer solo batting practice. I had a Reds play batting helmet that expired one day when we were playing a pickup game at the park and we were using it for second base. Joe Amann rounded second, I heard a CRACK, and that was that.
I never played on a baseball team. I believe I was briefly on a rec-center softball team that never told me when the practices were, but frankly, I was never for a second interested in softball. To me, it might as well have been underwater cricket. If you met me tomorrow and asked me to tell you the difference between baseball and softball, I wouldn’t be able to do it. I just know in my heart of hearts that it’s not baseball. It’s not the same thing at all.
I don’t remember being taken to lots of baseball games as a kid. I went to a few Columbus Clippers games (“Tucker Ashford” became my favorite baseball-player name in that era), but since they were the farm team for the much-despised New York Yankees, I didn’t have a lot of loyalty to them. At that time, Columbus was, televisionally, a National League town and showed only Reds games. The only times I’ve seen the Cleveland Indians play have been when they played the Reds in the start-of-the-season Ohio Classic.
I did read a bunch of baseball books as a kid — what seemed like the whole Matt Christopher baseball series. “Catcher With a Glass Arm.” “Out at Second.” “Miracle at the Plate.” That sort of thing. But to this day I don’t have a section in my library for any book on baseball. Ted Williams’ “The Science of Hitting”? It’s a classic, and I would love to read it. But I don’t have it. Nor do I have a baseball abstract, a guide to sabremetrics, a price guide for baseball cards, or even anything by Roger Angell. Until this year, when I bought “Watching Baseball Smarter,” I had never purchased a book on baseball.
I did collect baseball cards, from somewhere around 1977 until 1983-ish. I didn’t know anyone else who did. (But there was a book ON baseball cards that I checked out so many times from the Harrisburg Public Library that they really should have just given it to me.) A few years ago, feeling stressed out by various things, I started collecting them again. It soothed me to sort them out by numbers, slide them in the protective sheets, and label the binders. I really do like buying the packs and seeing what I get at random (though they don’t put gum in there any more); it feels like cheating to plunk down the bucks for a complete set. I don’t know why it matters, since ultimately I’m leaving the whole collection to one of my kids, but it does matter. Baseball isn’t about the sure thing.
I have never studied baseball. I have just watched it, played it (mostly by myself), and loved it as much as I possibly could.
It just seems to me like baseball is about everything. You have heroes and demons, stars and spoilers. Individual effort and teamwork. Glory and heartbreak. Cranky managers, goofy catchers, eloquent sportswriters, verbose announcers, late bloomers, and diamonds in the rough. Prospects and washouts. Big swings and small ball. Statistics and swagger. And every once in a rare while, you have a play that ends with one manager storming out of the dugout in a tirade, or scratching his head and consulting the rulebook.
People who dislike sports in general seem to loathe baseball in particular. To them it is a waste of a good summer day — slow, boring, pointless. George Carlin is an excellent example. Some people like sports but not baseball; my mother is one of them. Though she’s not a sporty or athletic person herself, she can break down a Buckeyes basketball game like a pro. But every time she looks at a baseball game, somebody’s spitting out a glop of chewing tobacco or adjusting his cup, and she recoils. (Oddly enough, she will watch “Field of Dreams” or “The Natural” without a care in the world. But I won’t push my luck with “Major League.”)
Now the Brewers are my hometown team. Two years ago I was present when they clinched their divisional title, and we had a strong hope, dashed by the St. Louis Cardinals, that they would go on to play in the World Series for their first time since 1982. This year, on the other hand, is a year to test one’s love of the game. Yet I find myself more immersed in baseball than ever. Between MLB TV, which provides upbeat background noise to my evenings, and the irreplaceable Bob Uecker on local radio, and the prospect of completing my 2012 (yes, 2012) set of Topps Series 1 cards, and the joy of rooting for the teams of my friends (never in my life did I think I could root for the Atlanta Braves) and sharing their heartbreak at the losses of game I otherwise would never have watched, there is an awful lot of baseball in this house.
I don’t know why I’ve been born with a love for the game and the men who play it. It seems odd to be born with dreams you can never achieve, like crushing a ball into the gap between left and center to score two speedy teammates. I’ll never get to do that. I’m not likely to ever attend a fantasy camp, see my team at spring training, or even go on a legends cruise. But I want to learn how to score the games. I want to know the rules inside out. I want to understand the physics of pitching, the science of hitting, and the art of managing. I want to pass on my love for this game to my children. Ironically, right now the only one of them who watches the games closely and asks questions about them is my ten-year-old daughter. The boys are more likely to design a ballpark, figure out how to blow one up, or calculate the attendance at a glance. But a couple of weeks ago my girl couldn’t sleep, and watched a few innings on the couch with me. The way her eyes widened when she saw Jean Segura think his way out of a rundown between third and home, and go on to score a run to help beat the Texas Rangers, made me feel like I’ve already hit a line drive. Play ball!