Since I am in the beginning stages of my own writing project dealing with a central figure in my life and who was also a central figure in so many other lives, it has made me reflect on the sport of baseball itself. I have found a love of the sport among the more permanent diversions of my entire life – over the entire length of it, from cradle to grave, as it were. I recall my gracious older brother and sister allowing me to take a swing for the very first time as a baseball-playing youngster, over at Austin Pryor’s front yard on Shelbyville Road at the age of around 8. It was a line drive down the third base line.
From that point on, throughout a career that began in Little League in St. Matthews, Kentucky, thence to Bowling Green and finally Owensboro, my early years with the game were a riotous pageant. I have always considered my “career” to pretty much consist of my experiences in high school. I played a disappointing period of Div 1 baseball for almost a year at Murray State University, then went 18 more years without seeing one pitch, swinging a bat or even making a throw. Like some of my generation, I dropped sports as a participatory enterprise in spite of being asked to play now and then. I “moved on”.
It was in Santa Cruz in 1986 when my good friend from Owensboro, Steve Bare, asked me if I wanted to play on a slow pitch softball team. The local radical veterans who I very much liked were looking to form a team. My first question was: “So, do we try to win?”
Assured this was the case, I joined that team and – 18 years after hanging up the spikes and mitt – I found myself playing shortstop in a recreational slow pitch softball league. It was an ironic return to a first love and I subsequently proved that by eventually, year by year, upping my participation to playing tournaments on weekends and joining one or two other regular season teams. Nor did I stop.
In 2007 I played over 200 ball games. There were a few years where I must have played 300 games. I’ve joined forces with Homicide Detectives, Iraq War vets due to get shipped back (messing with our lineups), females, ex NFL players and a business partner in order to fully explore the competitive spirit together. It was always a labor of true love.
There are ample souls who despair over baseball’s “pace”. They feel it is somehow too slow for their tastes. I often wonder if these same people would enjoy golf played with Jet Ski radicalism, jetting quickly to the next shot and getting it all dealt with in half an hour – replays later on Sportscenter – (lasting an hour.)
Having played both football and basketball at a reasonably high level, I have encountered the pluses and minuses of these sports as well. A fine game for mesomorphs, football is a semi-lethal contest of weight and strength with a ferocity one has to experience to truly understand. I am quite sure my list of concussions is longer than what it might appear to be. You can get absolutely destroyed by the full force of an automobile crash and never even have seen where the damage came from. You can also not know you don’t know what bell got rung until you wake up on your feet, later, sometimes even on the field during play. As a study in human consciousness, football – the game – is not reliable because consciousness becomes literally variably memorable. Then, of course, there are the broken bones. I had about 3-4 broken bones, playing football.
Basketball is another story altogether. Frankly, when the players start rolling out who are above 6′ 6″ tall, it’s time to watch and not participate. My basketball career ended as a junior in high school when I found myself competing with eventual NBA player Butch Beard for a rebound under our basket during a high school game against his team of returning State Champions. As I “went up” for the ball, I swore I saw myself looking at Butch’s knees. Not his waist – his knees. We’re saying here that Butch could grab balls 7 feet more off the ground than I could. It was an epiphany. I also never went back out for the high school team.
But baseball – now baseball lets a 5′ 4″ shortstop like Chris Cates make his current way all the way up to the AA pro level. The best pitcher in baseball, Tim Lincecum, weighs around 175 pounds and the ball absolutely explodes out of his hands. Near-normal men play baseball!! What’s more, they are the best in the world at the sport. Like Soccer, baseball attracts athletes who are far nearer “normal” in size, although there are exceptions.
Then there is the pageant of the hit ball. Once a ball is hit, all 9 defensive positions in baseball are swinging into a choreography dependent on offensive players on base. Every single hit ball demands 9 defenders move in predictable unison to their various assignments. Every percentage is accounted for from bad throws to intuitive throws made to prevent advancement. The sudden bursts of activity in baseball accompany a luring sense of lassitude while people get comfortable watching the pitcher and catcher play catch. Suddenly, it’s on.
Baseball is played during the best time of year – Spring and Summer. Parents find time to watch their kids play, the kids learn to work hard to get better – I mean, there’s no real downside. The practice of any sport is the secret towards improving and advancing. It yields children who grow into adults understanding the work-ethic and what it brings as rewards, the true secret of athletic success.
Kids have no problem loving baseball. Like the requirements of the French language, one plays and corresponds better with a something one loves. The gaps between plays are numerous and sometimes boring to everyone. It is at these times that the game sometimes shows its greatest gift. I have heard jokes in a baseball dugout which stayed with me for life, lol.
I celebrate baseball more as time goes along. Recently, I have been attending University of Louisville’s baseball games. The current college game has advanced to a near equivalent of AA Pro Ball – with the best coaches in America opting to stay at the University level where tenure and longevity apply so much more than the shifting alliances of the professional game. There is more teaching going on and kids are forced to either sign pro after high school or else endure a minimum of 3 years at school before their next draft availability.
It has made for an exceptionally fascinating improvement in the game at that level. I have to believe it also raises the game as a sport since so many guys come into the game with more college behind them, where emotions and rivalries were rife with real emotional character and games played for such things as pride and loyalty. I also believe many of the coaches are more patient and plain better than a string of motivated or under motivated pro coaches.
So I’m enjoying the game as much if not more than ever before.
“Kill the ump!!”