What is Baseball?
It is not just a game. It is a romance. It is a passion.
I have been a Dodgers fan since I was in little league. When I began my short career in Baseball, we didn’t have sponsors, so we played as MLB subordinates. I was an Oriole, but my friend was a Dodger. The hat won me over, and I have been a Dodger fan since.
My boys won the ’88 series under Tommy and Oerl. I watched it on NBC. I saw Gibson make his legendary homerun in game 1. I watched Oerl pitch nine innings in game 5. I laughed at the A’s.
I was 12.
Before the internet and smart phones, I had to follow my boys through the Winston Salem Journal and Sports Center. In the spring of 1994, when I was a naïve 17 year old senior in high school, I read and heard about an impending strike by the Player’s Association that would eventually lead to me exiting MLB Baseball until the early 2000s when my brother-in-law led me back to the low and away curve thrown at 3-2 in the 5th with a runner on second.
The ’94 strike left me angry and sad. The ’94 strike allowed me to see all the flaws in the MLB. The ’94 strike left me abandoned and alone in my love for a game that moves so majestically. The ’94 strike was King Lear and Macbeth all in a theatre of Romeo and Juliet while exposing the flaws of humanity that only Hamlet could expose. The ’94 strike was the ultimate tragedy that even Shakespeare couldn’t have seen. The ’94 strike was pointless and wrong. It was another nail in the coffin for Baseball.
I have struggled to find a reason why Baseball has captured my attention since that fateful spring, and subsequent summer, of 1994. It could be the single to right that lands the tying run on 1st. It could be the 6-4-3 double play that holds the lead in the 6th. It could be the sacrifice bunt that moves the winning run to 3rd where images of Jackie Robinson stealing home immediately come to mind. It could be the two out, ninth inning batter with a 3-2 count and a runner on 2nd. It could be the absence of Jeter chasing Ted Williams and the last .400 season. It could be the anticipation of seeing a no hitter by Kershaw or Bumgarner. Or it could simply be the thrill of hearing that wonderful sound of the ball hitting a wooden bat before it sails 369 feet at Wrigley field. It could be any of these. Or even more.
I have tried to explain how beautiful Baseball is so many times in the past. The simple fact is that it is poetry in motion. Art in sport. Strategy between a manager, pitcher and catcher – all against a batter who holds a .250 – .325 average against a lefty.
Show me that depth of strategy in football…
I was an avid Marino fan as a child. Duper and Clayton taking those 30 yard passes that ended in 6 points. Shots fired from that cannon Marino called a right arm that were thrown in mere seconds of the snap. Shots thrown with such beautiful accuracy that you often wondered how a fly would survive one moment within Marino’s range.
But Marino, who stared down 300 lb. defenses before rocketing a pass 20 yards through a plethora of backs and safeties, never stood on the mound in the 6th inning with runners on 1st and 3rd, a 3-0 count with a batter whose avg. was .321 and who had already doubled in the 2nd. That’s pressure.
Cobb. Mantle. Robinson. Aaron. Williams. Clemmons. Colfax. Boggs. Rivera. Ford. Martinez. Henderson….Sr. and Jr.
And of course Ruth. Oh the Babe.
Even Jordan marvels at the icon that is the Babe.
Every sport has its greats, but the Babe transcends all. Can Kobe ever be Jordan? Can Brady ever be Montana? Can Federer ever be Laver? But none can be the Babe. Case in point – Roger Maris. Mark McGwire. Barry Bonds. All shadows. All asterisks. All fall short of the Babe.
Sure the Babe never played on the west coast or had the pressure of a 120 game season. But what if he had? What if Ruth had been placed against all the factors that today’s batters are placed against. Our stadiums are smaller now, and the pitches are more limited than what Ruth faced. I have no doubt that Ruth would not need supplements to guide the ball over the green monster in Boston. He wouldn’t need chemical help to push the ball into the river at San Francisco or Pittsburgh, because he was what baseball needed when he arrived. He was THE Babe. The only player who truly defined what a baseball player could be.
And no athlete has ever defined a sport the way Ruth did Baseball. Jordan redefined basketball. Gretzky redefined hockey. Unitas set the standard that all QBs would be held. Nicklaus created expectations that, even today, putters and drivers hold as religious law. But the Babe. Oh the Babe. Even now that most of his records have been dispensed, he still remains the standard. He remains the ghost in the shell of the system.
But so has Roy Hobbs, the legendary fictitious “natural.” In the original novel, Roy succumbs to the dark side of baseball. The thrown game. It’s an allegory based on the culture of betting in the years surrounding the Black Sox scandal. It critiques America’s love for the game and the game’s heroes.
But Hollywood redeemed Hobbs. Robert Redford redeemed Hobbs. No other Hollywood moment can compare to the walk off homerun at the end as he, after belting his biggest hit in the movie (while nursing an injury), shattered the lights and ran through the sparks that fell to the field as he single handedly won the pennant for “Pops.”
There’s also Crash Davis, the minor league catcher who breaks the career homerun record for minor leaguers after helping Nuke LaLoosh get to the majors in Bull Durham. “I believe there ought to be a constitutional amendment outlawing Astroturf and the designated hitter.” So do I, Crash.
Major League brought us “Wild Thing” and Jake Taylor with his call to center before he bunts to bring Willie Mayes Hayes to the plate for the winning run. Cobb gave us Tommy Lee as the dying Ty Cobb, A League of Their Own gave us the greatest line in baseball lore (“There’s no crying in baseball”), and of course Walter Matthau has always been the greatest little league coach in the history of the game when he drunkenly stumbled through Bad News Bears.
And then there was Field of Dreams. The movie that didn’t celebrate baseball, but instead celebrated the love and lure of baseball. It’s not Burt Lancaster or James Earl Jones. It’s not Ray Liotta or Art LeFleur. It’s not even the fact that America forgave the Black Sox in a moment of nostalgic 1980s Hollywood magic. What Field of Dreams becomes is the same thing that The Natural becomes. A simple game of catch between a father and his son. Field of Dreams reminds us what baseball can be. It is our national past time. It is our history and our culture. As Mann notes:
“The memories will be so thick they’ll have to brush them away from their faces. People will come Ray. The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again.”
Baseball is legendary folk songs. Baseball is the 7th inning stretch. Baseball is the smell of the ball park. A hotdog and a beer. Peanuts. Crackerjacks. The strikeout. The Double play. The crack of the bat. The first homerun sailing over the left field wall you ever see.
I don’t remember the first homerun I ever saw, but I remember the first my oldest son saw. Winston was the Warthogs at the time. We were at Ernie Shore Field. The batter swung, the sound echoed, and we watched as the ball sailed gracefully over the left field wall. My son jumped up and asked if that was a homerun. I simply answered “yes, it was.”
We saw two more that day, and my son learned the sound of a homerun when it comes off a bat. It’s a sound you never forget.
What makes this game so majestic and so beautiful is that within that small span of time that 9 innings cover, you see a game that hasn’t changed in almost 200 years. Yes, we have a DH now. Yes, pitchers don’t go nine innings much anymore. Yes, we’ve gotten rid of the spit ball. But in reality, the NFL changes more rules per season than Baseball has in a century. There is a wonderful feeling of knowing that one at bat has been the same year after year after decade after century. The pitcher looks in for the sign. The batter swings a few loose swings as the pitcher checks first. The wind up. The throw. And then it comes….that silence; that pause; that break in time and space as the ball sails from hand to home plate. That’s what makes Baseball beautiful. That’s what makes baseball timeless.
That is the poetry.