“It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in spring, when everything else begins again. And it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings. And then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. ” A. Bartlett Giamatti, the former commissioner of Major League Baseball. From the lush, green grass to the smell of an old leather glove, baseball is truly an extraordinary game. Let us look beyond the enormous salaries and free agency and examine baseball for what it really is: an outstanding form of entertainment.
Baseball is incredibly important to me, as not only have I learned an enormous amount from it, I have experienced a whole spectrum of emotions during my love affair with the game. I have been a baseball fan all my life. I remember watching my beloved St. Louis Cardinals play in their robin’s egg blue uniforms in the early 1980’s. We had a birdfeeder in our backyard, and every morning, the same cardinal would stop for his breakfast. I named him Tommy Herr, after the Cardinals second baseman at the time. Tommy has long since retired, but I will always remember the little bird flying in my backyard.
It is difficult for one to approach this subject without a sense of heroism and romanticism of it’s rich history. One of my favorite parts of going to the ballpark is listening to the fascinating stories of old timers, the men who have loved the game since childhood. They remember Musial, Maris, and Mantle. They can tell you stories of hearing Hank Aaron hitting his record breaking home run on the radio, or watching Lou Gehrig as a young child. Many of the greatest baseball stories can be heard from these men, living encyclopedias if what the game once was, and it today.
Someday I will be sitting in the box seats of a ballpark, and a young child will take the seat beside me. I can captive his imagination with anecdotes of Cal Ripken Jr. ’s remarkable streak, Ozzie Smith’s amazing back flips, Pedro Martinez’s menacing fastball, and the magical summer of 1998 when Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire mystified the world with their long ball heroics. Only in recent years have I begun to truly appreciate the game for what it really is. While some go to the ballpark to see home runs, popular players, or fireworks, I find myself attracted to the more subtle aspects of the game.
There’s nothing like a riveting, 1-0 pitchers duel, or seeing a wide-eyed rookie connecting for a game winning hit. I appreciate a come-from-behind victory. I like watching the underdogs defeating the better team in the playoffs. Being born and raised on the Cardinals, I have only seen my team in the playoffs once in the last twelve years. Yet I still return every spring, with hopes and expectations that this season will be “the one”. If the fall rolls around to find us under . 500, I find myself quoting many Cubs fans with the often used phrase, “Maybe next year… ”
Baseball has taught me to enjoy many simple pleasures, from the emerald grass to the first bite of a hot dog from a major league baseball stadium. Unlike so many others caught up in the corporate and economical commotion that takes place off the field, I can sit for hours watching a leisurely paced game and appreciate every at bat. I love the sound of a fastball smacking inside a catchers glove. I have been known to hold a glove up to my face, just to inhale it’s intoxicating scent. Being a baseball fan means more than worshipping a team after an important victory and riding on its success.
Being a fan means sticking it out throughout the rebuilding years and struggling through the injuries, downfalls, and defeats. There is a lot to learn from this game. Baseball is a game of numbers. I look at statistics as stockbrokers look at the Dow Jones report. I remember being thirteen years old, getting the newspaper every morning, and immediately flipping to the sports section to see the latest averages and league leaders. There was a point in my life when I knew the batting average of every current player within four points.
I would look forward to hearing Harold Reynolds and Karl Ravich on Baseball Tonight on ESPN to see how well all the teams had fared in the night’s matchups. I still enjoy the simplistic pleasures of picking up the sports page and seeing how my favorite players performed the previous day, even though I do not keep track of statistics as I once did. I read baseball literature quite often. I own copies of “Bunts” and “Men at Work”, both by George Will. “Bunts” is my favorite: a collection of short articles and anecdotes about baseball, past and present.
He discusses everything from his share of stock in the Chicago Cubs to baseball’s finest moments. Nothing compares to witnessing a record-breaking home run sail out of the park. Last year, when Mark McGwire brought fans everywhere back to the game with his chase of Roger Maris’ 61 home runs in a single season, I followed baseball closer then ever. On September 8, at 8:18 PM, I remember sitting in my living room with my father as McGwire sat one long ball away from breaking the record in a game against the Chicago Cubs.
The contest was hyped up more then the Super Bowl. Everyone at the stadium, in their local pubs, or sitting on their couch at home was watching; waiting. Then he hit a home run. That’s all. Just like any other game. However, this one was special, and meant so much more. Everyone went crazy. My father and I were cheering, as were all the baseball fans around the world. It didn’t matter whether you were old, young, male, female, die hard baseball fan, or just an occasional sports viewer; this was history.
In the midst of all the commotion, I sat down and thought for a moment: This is one man, playing a simple game he’s loved since being a child, and what does he do after crossing home plate? Pick up his young son and embrace him, like any father would. This made me realize how special baseball really is. It is a game for fathers and sons, and mothers and daughters. I am proud to say that my children will not be raised on Disney fairy tales, but on stories of Mark McGwire’s magical chase of history. Another reason I love this game?
On any given day, any given player can do almost anything. Just this July, I watched Jose Jiminez, a struggling rookie hurler, throw a no-hitter for the Cardinals against the Arizona Diamondbacks. I witnessed little known Craig Paquette come to the Cardinals in a mid season trade and excite St. Louis with three game winning hits in his first week with the team. I have seen fresh-faced kids from the minor leagues come out and light up the baseball world, and likewise, I have seen the games greatest marquee players sit and stare at a scoreboard that reflects their mishaps.
Randomness is underrated, and in the game of baseball it happens almost daily. When the cold fall winds begin to breeze by, I know the season is coming to a close. I bundle up in my warmest coat and head out to the ballpark for one last time before it’s all over. I observe the players who know they are going to postseason. I watch the players who have been mathematically eliminated. They both play with the same kind of joy. They love being out there, and I am sure they would not trade it for anything else in the world. They know that next year, it will all begin again.
A fresh new start. A brand new season. However, right now, it is fall. A pitcher grabs a coat to keep his throwing arm warm in this chilly rain, and soon the entire dugout is seen donning coats. The leaves start to change to brown. Kids go back to school. Football begins to creep onto the minds and lips of sports fans. The season comes to a close, and the spring looks terribly far away with an icy cold winter between now and the promises that lie ahead. Baseball has survived throughout the years. It has survived two World Wars. It has survived a depression.
It will continue to survive throughout the next millennium. It has gone on strike and saw half it’s fans leave, then watched them come back to see truly great men exhibit even greater talent. Baseball is a sport for the ages. Eighty year old men who have watched this game for years come to the park and sit next to eight year old boys who have never seen a professional game in their lives. That’s what baseball is all about. It is extraordinary. Athletes rise above the compitition and achieve greatness while astonishing veteran fans and simultaneously earning new ones.