Spring and Baseball are in the Air
Spring and Baseball are in the Air
Who cares what some rodent in Pennsylvania has to say? Spring starts the day when pitchers and catchers are scheduled to report for spring training. I know this, and it doesn’t really matter what the weather forecasters have to say, either. Or what it looks like outside my window. Or what the calendar makers say.
Winter sometimes seems like an endless gloom. The first sign that there really is an end to the gloom is the fact that baseball is starting up again. That is how I mark the season.
I know a secret. Well, it isn’t so much a secret as much as it is an understanding known to fewer and fewer people every year. And this is unfortunate, because once upon a time this was no secret at all.
You see, for a number of reasons that only true baseball fans can appreciate, baseball stands out above all other sports.
When I was a kid, things were different. Many of us were in on this secret. I was far from alone. Certain numbers had meanings all to themselves, and it had to do with baseball, not math. It seemed like everybody knew what the number 714 meant. That was one of the magic numbers in baseball. There were many others: 60; 61; .406; 56; 4,189; 104; 897; 511; 1.12; 3,509. These were all cherished records that the mere mention of the numbers told us what they meant. Many of them have been surpassed, but some of them still stand as records. How many people today instinctively know the significance of these numbers, and which ones are still records?
Quick, tell me what the major league record is now for lifetime home runs – or even for single-season home runs. You can’t do it, not without adding a commentary about how the record is now tainted. You probably don’t even care what those numbers are. But in my day, the fact that records in baseball became cherished numbers was a sign of the greatness of baseball.
We also knew the significance of baseball’s cherished milestones. We knew which players had reached 500 lifetime home runs, and which current players were closing in on that milestone. The same thing with 300 career wins for a pitcher. We knew the names of baseball’s legends, what their contributions to the sport were, and how the current players measured up statistically with the all-time greats. And we watched many players who are now in the class of all-time greats. I consider myself lucky to have attended games in which these players participated: Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, Johnny Bench, Pete Rose, Willie Stargell, Tom Seaver, Billy Williams, Reggie Jackson, Catfish Hunter, Rod Carew, Brooks Robinson, Carl Yastrzemski, Nolan Ryan, George Brett, and many more. When I saw them, they were chasing the greats. Now, they are known as greats themselves. It was a thrill just to be able to say that I got to see them in person. Looking at this list, I see the names of three players I have actually spoken to in my life. Not bad for somebody who grew up 100 miles from the nearest Major League stadium, too poor to attend very many games, and who has never had inside connections to any team or player.
The point is, today it seems as if you have to belong to some kind of secret club, the one called “People who Understand the Beauty of Baseball and the Significance of the Game’s History”, in order to fully appreciate the game. Membership in this club is dwindling. But back in the day, this was no secret club. It seemed as if almost everybody was in on the secret.
Even today’s players, as a group, don’t understand the significance of the numbers, or the contributions of the players who came before them. I remember watching a telecast as far back as the 1980s in which several baseball stars of the day were asked questions about the game’s history. Hardly any of them could answer questions what nearly every schoolboy a generation earlier knew. I doubt if today’s players could do any better.
People who are not in on the secret might look at a baseball game and see a bunch of guys standing around for long periods of time, in between brief periods of action. People who view baseball this way will tell you that the game is boring. Those of us who know better will be able to tell you that something relevant and interesting is going on at all times. While others are bored by what they see as inaction, we are excited because we are getting an insight into the game, insight that will help determine winners and losers.
I feel sorry for people who don’t understand the game well enough to get excited about it. I think they are missing out on one of life’s great joys. But there is hope for these people. All they have to do is attend a game with somebody who is in on my little secret, and pay attention.
Perhaps commercialization and big money play a role in the decrease in appreciation for baseball history, and how the game is supposed to be played. When I was a kid, major league stadiums had names like Candlestick Park, Connie Mack Stadium, Tiger Stadium, Forbes Field, Municipal Stadium, Metropolitan Stadium, and Comiskey Park. The teams which called these stadiums home now play in stadiums which are named AT&T Park, Citizens Bank Park, Comerica Park, PNC Park, Progressive Field, Target Field, and U.S. Cellular Field. I decry the selling of stadium naming rights, and other big-money changes in the game. But this has not soured me on the game itself.
I married somebody who was not a baseball fan. She understood and accepted the fact that I care about the game. In the fall of 1994, for the only time in modern history, there was no World Series. That fall, for the only time in my life, I got married. I guess I felt lost by the absence of baseball and I needed something else to do. At least that’s the joke we tell about it now. Anyway, she understood that I am a baseball fan, and she agreed to attend a game with me. If it made me happy, she was willing to go along with it.
But I tricked her. I had a plan. I got myself a scorecard, and I explained to her that I always keep score of games that I attend. I told her that it was important that I not miss a play, because if I did it would taint my scorecard. I explained that at some point during the game, I might have to leave my seat in order to go to the restroom or the concession stand, and that if I did she would have to keep score of the game in my absence. So, I explained to this non-fan how to keep score. I showed her the players in each position, told her what the position numbers were. In the process, I explained what the players were doing when everybody thought they were just standing around – and how the players move during each play. This non-fan not only gained an understanding of the game, but she has been a die-hard baseball fan ever since. And we have been happily married ever since. So sue me for tricking her that way.
Baseball mirrors the seasons of nature:
- A new beginning when everything is possible (spring)
- The heating up of pennant races, not to mention the dog days (summer)
- The harvest – for winners, as playoff winners and World Champions are determined, or the fall – reflections on what-might-have-been and what-do-we-do-differently-next-year for also-rans (autumn)
- The cold silence of the offseason, as plans are being made for next year while the playing fields are dark and unattended (winter)
I miss the days when baseball really was America’s Pastime, and my appreciation of the game didn’t make me feel as if I belong to some secret club. But if I have to be in the minority on this subject, I can feel smug in knowing something that other people don’t know. It’s their loss and my enjoyment.
For a true baseball fan, spring is already in the air.
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