I Dream of Baseball

February 13, 2010

I often dream about baseball.

With the dreaded off-season here again, which slowly crept to the present like a runner who takes his slight movements off of first base, I find once again that a small part of me has died, not to be resurrected until the following spring.

It is a paradox; we long for the fall and for the contentions among teams to rise, for the post-season to approach, for tensions become so great we find our lives wrapped so far around the rivalries and the aura of baseball we have to brush it off of our shoulders. And yet, we also wish for the season to never end, so there wouldn’t be a day without our beloved game.

Baseball breaks your heart. But, as A. Bartlett Giamatti said, it was designed to break your heart. Inherently, it is a game of failure. Twenty-nine factions and their fan constituents will inevitably be denied true satisfaction of success of a championship. At least half cannot even claim to have had a winning season.

Think of the failure of a hitter: a batter will come to the plate hundreds of times in one season. A very successful batter may succeed at the plate less than a third of the time. A vast majority of appearances will result in failure. And yet, the hitting king will only successfully reach base on a hit well under half the time.

The game of baseball still lives deep in all of our hearts. We are, after all, true fans. We arrive at games early, in time to watch batting and fielding practice, ogling over deep home runs and in our minds, deterred by players who replace excellence with nonchalant movements. Two hands, you shout, silently. You know that it’ll cost that second baseman eventually, if he keeps it up. You casually converse with neighbors, and for a few, quick hours, they are your family.

You keep score for no other reason than you always have, keeping focus to every play and watching the game like you are not just a spectator but an arbiter of truth. Umpires may be human, but even you sitting in the second deck could precisely give an accurate call.

And whether or not the score is close, you remain in your seat, still able to appreciate the right fielder inching his momentum depending on the swing of the bat. You watch a perfectly executed sacrifice bunt, and you relax in your chair, thinking about how much you’re in love with the game. It becomes a part of you, part of your personality and characteristic. It is infallible.

I continue to dream of baseball. I imagine myself, like every other sensible fan, stepping to the plate, tapping the bat on the faint rubber ritualistically, raising it to your right shoulder and peering over your left to the pitcher. He is scared, like a child without an answer praying he’s not called upon by his teacher.

Apprehensively, he raises his leg and fires, and your bat connects with the ball with such perfection that you could see the ball frozen between its forward motion and its potential flight off of the wood. You dig around first base, glancing out towards right-center, and push yourself around second into third, sliding into the bag head-first a second in front of the tag. You reach your arms out and hug the bag, knowing there is no better game or idea than the one of baseball.

I find myself dreaming less and less during the winter months preceding opening game. The frigid winds don’t lend themselves to imagination like the grandeur of the stadium. I, like others I’m sure, wish this wasn’t so, for I demand some kind of recollection or sensation of baseball to keep myself occupied until the upcoming season. And yet, it often becomes difficult.

And thus, I wait, and I wish. I wish for April, for the light of baseball to shine upon my face like golden ropes and fulfill my imagination again. I wish for April, to see the new-found hope for all teams and players, with a clean slate to work from. Many of them will fall to the cellar like their perennial destiny, and others may come to surprise us. Millions of others like myself wait, and continue to long for the spring, where the sun will shine and we may be able to dream again.

Advertisements

The Pittsburgh Pirates – In Need of a Government Bail-out?

February 13, 2010

Alright, alright, so I exaggerate. Maybe they don’t need any kind of bail-out, but even still, the numbers almost make you cringe.

According to ESPN, the Pirates have once again finished dead last…in terms of total roster salary. In 2009, their roster posted a meager $25 million.  The next lowest, out of 30 teams, paid over $10 million more than that.  In fact, even the 27th lowest team, the Oakland Athletics, had a team salary over twice the amount of the Pirates.

If you thought those statistics were mind-boggling, wait until you read this one:

The New York Yankees had a 2009 team salary of over $208 million. Yes, a full eight times greater than the Pirates’.  And the worst one of all?  Alex Rodriguez made over $8 million more in 2009 than the entire Pittsburgh Pirates organization.

The salary cap argument continues, made especially urgent by the Yankees’ recent World Series victory. But I’m not here to argue for or against a salary cap, for the topic has been discussed ad nausea. I’m merely pointing out the absurdity that one man’s worth in baseball is far greater than an entire team. That fact alone gives those in favor of the cap a lot of ammunition.  Whether one agrees or disagrees with the arguments for a salary cap, one must admit the absurdity of it all.

Oh, and one more fun tidbit – the Yankees’ payroll in 2009 nearly tops all five of the lowest team salaries.

My point is this:  whether you have a team with a gigantic payroll or a team like the Pirates, it still takes talent to win the World Series.  No fan can refute this (however, they will still proclaim that capitalism was the series’ MVP).

I’m not the kind of fan to normally play devil’s advocate, especially in favor of the New York Yankees.  I, among many, find an internal hatred for the Yankees to be nothing less than hereditary.  However, in 2009, it is difficult to argue with the facts. They did have the MLB’s best regular-season record, and they did perform the best in the playoffs.  I’m not certain even the most formidable Phillies fanatic could disagree.

Is it to say that the Yankees have absolutely no advantage over another team because of their payroll? Absolutely not.  Once again, I believe even most Yankee fans recognize this. However, it does not guarantee anything.  The Yankees had nearly the same payroll in 2008, and failed to even make the playoffs.

Lest we forget, the American League champions were the Tampa Bay Rays, which if we look at a listing of the 2008 team salaries, had the Yankees still leading the pack and the Rays trailing them by a mere 28 ranks.  The Rays had the lowest total in the American league, and yet they out-performed the Yankees in a full 162-game season.

Does having a higher payroll give a team a statistical advantage because they can afford to sign top-notch players to sensational contracts? Absolutely. Does that team still need to out-perform the other 29 teams through a 162-game season and three rounds of playoffs to win a championship?  Absolutely.

How Babe Herman DIDN’T Triple Into a Triple Play

February 13, 2010

In Baseball Anecdotes, where admittedly a lot of these stories are based from, the preface begins with an explanation of anecdotal lore:

A baseball reporter once asked a coach of long and varied experience what were his fondest memories of a lifetime in the game…the entire history of baseball seemed to reside in the gray stubble on his face, the wrinkles in his neck, the dry flesh on his arms and legs. “Which stories do you want?” he asked the reporter. “The true ones or the other ones?”

“It’s less important that Babe Ruth called his shot in Wrigley Field in 1932 than it is that millions believe he did” [Ahh, the infamous called shot. I plan on having a future writing to be about the classic stories we all know (the called shot, the Giants win the pennant, etc) but with another twist and plethora of information about it most casual fans don’t know.]

There’s a famous line from the classical western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” That moniker alone could be the anthem for all baseball stories. For, like stated above, it is more important that we believe it happened than it is that it actually happened.

This brings us to Babe Herman, the infamous Brooklyn Dodger who famously “tripled into a triple play.”

The Dodgers have three men on base! “Which one?”

As Jim Murray describes in his essay Did Babe Herman Really Triple into a Triple Play?, Babe Herman’s career was a “series of fly balls bouncing off his cap, sliding into occupied bases, passing base runners with his head down, starting to trot in from the outfield with only the second out with the bases loaded…”

“Floyd Caves Herman never tripled into a triple play, but he once doubled into a double play, which is the next best thing.” – John Lardner

In 1926, with the Dodgers facing the Braves, back-up catcher Mickey O’Neil played the role of the 3rd base coach for the only time in his career. After complaining that he never saw any action on the field, Otto Miller (the usual 3rd base coach) humored him, inserting him into his own spot for a day.

With the bases loaded, Herman hit a one-out drive to deep center field. After bouncing off the wall, Hank DeBerry scored from third base. Chick Fewster, who started the play on first base, rounded second base heading for third. However, Dazzy Vance, a pitcher who’s ineptitude on the base paths shined bright in this infamous play, found himself locked between third base and home. O’Neil, coaching from third, saw that Herman was rounding second base as well as Fewster headed towards third, and suspecting that Babe might pass him resulting in an out, shouted “Back! Back!”

Vance, more suited behind the pitcher’s mound, mistook O’Neil’s screams to be directed at him rather than Herman, and thus hesitated between the bags, before retreating back to third. Fewster, who at this point stood on third legitimately looked around in confusion – both Vance and Herman slid into the bag from opposite base paths.

Herman, however, tells the story differently – “Now, I got the throw beat, and I slide into second. Safe, right? So, now, somebody hollers to Jimmy Cooney, the [Braves’] shortstop, and he throws home. Al Spohrer chases Vance back to third. Now, I go to third on the rundown and, naturally, I slide into third. Safe, right? Now, I was called out for passing Fewster, but Vance is on third and it’s his bag by the rules. Spohrer begins tagging everybody, but I’m already out. It’s like sentencing a dead man. Now, there are only two out, but Fewster wanders out to right field to get his glove and Doc Gautreau, the Braves’ second baseman, chases him and tags him out.”

What is largely forgotten in the legacy of the play (and, for some imaginable reason, forgotten by everyone in the stadium during it), DeBerry’s run from third before the madness that ensued after had been the game winning run.

During the argument which occurred after the play, Vance, still on the ground after his slide, rose, and according to Rube Bressler, stated, “Mr. Umpire, fellow teammates, and members of the opposition: If you carefully peruse the rules of our national pastime, you will find that there is one and only one protagonist in rightful occupancy of this hassock–namely yours truly, Arthur C. Vance.”

“Eight years after Herman left the majors, the Dodgers were desperate for wartime help, and Herman was brought back as a pinch-hitter, aged forty-one. In his first appearance at the plate, he singled to right, rounded first, and fell flat on his face.”

Baseball Utopia

February 13, 2010

Tomorrow is April 4th, 2156.  It is a typical, brisk day, where the soft wind brushes your hair like a cold fan in a small room.  Spring is here again, the season of growth and development, where anticipation for the summer begins and the year begins anew.  However, there is something different than similar days in years past.  Tomorrow should have been my 61st opening day of the game I love.  I cannot say its true name, for as we are told, it is illegal.  Our Game, as I’d learned to call it, was banned indefinitely around the turn of the 22nd century.  I was six years old, and I would never go to another opening game again.

Nearly sixty years ago, the government deemed leisure activity to be, as they stated, “unbecoming of a truly utopian society.”  Sports and games ceased, and all equipment found would be destroyed.  After several months, anyone found with any sort of memorabilia or equipment would be court-martialed.  In fact, it is illegal to even write this, but as I tell myself, it is necessary to continue the legacy of Our Game.

Each day, I lower myself into the cellar and pull out a hidden crate from the corner of the room.  In it, lies several old bats, which are slightly too heavy, a ball which at this point is becoming more and more lob-sided through the years, and a glove that I’ve done my best to maintain in a remotely playable shape.

Every morning we are forced to march a parade, I suppose for no other reason than to assert our allegiance to our utopia and manipulate normality of these events to the participants.  When the parade is finished, I break the law by running home, weary of the gleaming alloy cars which dart in and out of streets in search of Injustice.  Walking and running on the streets is unbecoming of a truly utopian society.  You see, I am unique.  I was born, I believe, with a developing mind, which is unusual.  I manipulate them, by keeping illegal equipment from Our Game and running and many other things, things which nearly all citizens have readily given up.  I am different, and yet I am the same.

The wall of my cellar, a concrete mass which appears to me like a smaller, grayer Green Monster, repels my throws like a rubber sheet.  I cannot move around like I once did, but my throws are just as hard and my defense has only improved.  If Our Game was still played, I could coach a team of impenetrable defenseman.  Give my players a wall, and they wouldn’t miss a ground ball for the rest of their careers.  I read somewhere a coach or scout, I cannot remember which, back in the golden age of Our Game used to actively promote the use of a practice wall.  As far as I’ve ever known, which in this society is incidentally very little, professionals rarely utilized this tool.

Even still, each day I improve my skills and keep my eyes sharp.  Every throw is a crime, every catch a greater crime, as I did have the choice to let the ball roll to a stop and repent my misdeed of throwing it to begin with.  Call me a Lawbreaker, for I catch every goddamn ball I throw.
All I wish is to share this feeling for Our Game with another one of us, but like I said, I’m unique.  There may be other citizens who, like me, secretly enjoy quick flashes of enjoyment from the smell of the glove to their faces or relish in the sound of a ball hitting against the sharp wall not unlike the crack of the bat to the ball used to sound.  And if these people do exist, we do share another thing in common:  a deep fear of being known.

If the surreptitiousness of my misdeeds are discovered, my equipment will be destroyed and my love will be gone.  And thus my love for Our Game, like the love for all things now illegal, remains hidden.  This is a shame, for even in the futuristic, lifeless setting of this utopian land, the affirmation that Our Game is meant to be played in the daylight, remains as pure as the game itself.

Like any right-minded adult male, a rarity in this society, my greatest wish is to pass along my love for Our Game to a descendent or someone to keep the relationship between man and the game as strong as I had left it.  Alas, with utopia, descendents, or any kind of grouping you might classify as a family does not exist.  We are all in one, and one in all.  We are told that there is no great man, but that of We. That phrase is repeated in monotonic repetition during the morning public demonstrations.

Thus, I am no more a father or grandfather to one citizen than another.  As a right-minded adult male, this poses a problem: to whom, therefore, do I share my love of life (a characteristic which belongs to perhaps none other here but myself) and Our Game?  For over fifty years I throw the ball against the distinct mark on the wall which has steadily grown darker over time to myself, but what if there were someone else?

What if I were able to play a makeshift game of catch with another citizen while perhaps sharing stories?  What if I were able to teach a child how to make a proper sacrifice bunt?   Never before have I been able to really use this bat, for a bat in a basement is about as useless as a catcher using a piece of cardboard to shield his face from an oncoming pitch.  I’ve never once truly pitched a ball or swung a bat, or at least done so in a contextually satisfying manner.

A million practice swings could never compare to being able to stare down the pitcher as he motions into his wind-up, stepping out in front of me with my right foot and twisting my wrists and hips around with my body, making perfectly-timed contact with the ball, watching it fly from my bat like a spring and pushing my body forward and throwing myself towards first base like a sprinter motioning to the golden tape of success.

I’m a lefty, which, as you’d guess, is unbecoming of a utopian society.  We are all to be the same.  We are all to be right-handers.  Occasionally, you’ll see someone reach for a door handle with their left hand subconsciously.  I watch and smile to myself, knowing they are a southpaw at heart but either don’t realize it or have spent their lives pretending to be right-handed.  It depresses me, though by utopian standards I should feel emotionally no different than any other citizen.

It is Our Game, I’ve grown to realize, which has inevitably separated me intellectually from the other citizens.  It is a game which teaches the rise and fall of human emotion, a trait which completely lacks from our society.  Nothing else in this current world engraves any power of success and failure, etching our lives with truth, love, mutual disappointments, and satisfaction.

We are vague, unrecognizable machines attempted to perfect and replicate generations of the past, sans life or purpose.  I am an anachronism, thinking things no mortal on this planet dares to think, acting out dreams which contradict the very meaning of our significance.  What else could have given me self-worth other than fielding automated ground balls or squaring up for a pretend bunt?  In this world, we are all the same, our value and worth no greater or worse than any other.  It is Our Game which distances me from the rest.  I possess a vision and meaning which no other identifiable citizen owns.  Our Game is my life blood, and to others it is unfamiliar, or at best a distant memory of a now unplayable phenomenon.  It is hell.

As the years pass, I grow older, slower.  A thought creeps to my consciousness like a base-runner shifting his momentum towards second, creeping off the bag, creating an undesirable sensation for the opposing hurler.  At what point will I become too feeble to continue to perform my daily crime?  It is the one task which differs me from the rest, which gives my life any special meaning, even if its significance only relays to my own psyche.

Suddenly, as if I’m a pitcher reacting to a ball being hit sharply back at me, I know exactly my calling.  No longer can I continue to hide in the secrecy of my basement.  The setting of my game is a direct representation of what Our Game has come to mean in this society—cold, lifeless, void of purpose.  I must reach out to the world.  I may be the only one who thinks these thoughts, who lives with meaning, who finds comfort in anything.  It is a characteristic I feel called to share with the world, if I have to commit deadly sin trying.  It is of greater importance than anything I could dare imagine.

The future of Our Game rests in perhaps only my hand, but that is merely a microcosm of what I’ve come to realize, a small representation of the only thing which distances true happiness and the kind utopian societies attempt to guarantee to its inhabitants.  I am forced to save the power of rationalization, of emotion, of intellectuality, of characteristics of humans of a former time.  It is up to me, quite possibly the only citizen left with the ability to think critically.  It is my calling.  It is no longer about the future of Our Game, but that of life and the world to come.

Instinctively, I knew where to start walking that night.  I darted behind houses, trees, anything to shield my presence from the gleaming alloy cars which cruise the streets searching for utopian undesirables:  me.  Of course, I could have obeyed the Law by driving.  This calling, however, depended on the power of individuality and rebellion.  Thus, I walk, surreptitiously hiding from the gleaming alloy cars in pursuit of the destined green field of my mind.

In generations past, it was a magnificent stadium, encompassing thousands of hearty fans in its inviting metal structure.  Now, however, it was merely an abandoned, dirt-covered field, sitting on the outskirts of town, forcibly distanced from our society.  Looking at it, I imagine the ballpark being torn down, stripped of its life.  I vision the grass being cut up, rolled into inanimate swaths, and trucked away.  Evil is the only thought which encircles my consciousness.

What is left is a dark, empty, field.  I feel no love, no emotion.  It is as if, by staring at the deep abyss which lies before me, my mind slowly transitions itself from my unique personification to that a lifeless drone.  When they took away the stadium of Our Game, our individuality and humanity went with it.  We became what they wished for us.  And slowly, as I watched the dirt rustle in the wind, I too fulfilled that destiny.  That night, I committed one of the deadliest sins of all—a solitary tear rolled down across my face, like a ball tumbling through an infield as pristine as Our Game has ever concocted.

The next morning, after returning home from our daily manipulation, I lowered myself into the basement and pulled out the familiar crate of life.  For many minutes, I stared blankly at the worn equipment, pondering the significance of their presence.  I felt the length of the bat, unchanged since its creation, the ball whose motion has captivated my imagination since my first throw, the glove which for sixty-one years has captured ground-balls perfectly and I imagine could last for another sixty-one years if need be.

I pull out the ball and bat, and without thinking I force myself back upstairs.  It is the first time in more than six decades they have abandoned the secrecy of my underground concrete surface.  I look outside, where I see a gleaming alloy car in the distance moving in my direction.  Stepping onto the fresh, cool grass, the ball is softly tossed into the sky as I raise my bat, and in one fluent motion, the very swing I’ve performed millions of times as practice, it connects with the ball.  The sound of the bat on the ball is indescribable, more beautiful than any other noise a human has dared to hear.  The now distant sphere continues to move swiftly through the air, surprised at its ease, as it drives itself into the front windshield of the gleaming alloy car.  I throw the bat behind me, and instinctively I begin running towards the remote field of the past.  As the gleaming alloy car surrounds me, I dive into the dirt head-first, throwing my arms around land, which, unbeknownst to anyone else, began to carry the faint aroma of Our Game about it.

Jackie Robinson

February 13, 2010

He walks to the plate

Not an ounce of nerve or caution

The bat resting on his shoulder

As delicately as anyone else

He is different, and yet the same

But he is different.

The first pitch is low, outside

His eye is poised, watchful, ready

The second comes in

He flings outward, momentum shifting

and runs. Oh, does he run.

Others advance to the base, he runs.

He is indeed different.

He creeps off the bag, steadily

Taunting the pitcher with each move

He dances down the line and back again

The pitcher throws, and off he goes

Without sliding, he beats the throw

His face is stern, not yet satisfied

His duty is not yet finished

He continues to dance off the bag

His style is true, charismatic

The pitcher, still visibly bothered

Tosses wildly home, his concentration broken

The runner trots to third, his face still stern

He was not yet content

One base still lay untouched

He was different, but only by 90 feet

With each pitch he thrusts himself

Down the baseline he moves

Working his way back to third again.

After several throws, the catcher

Jumping to his feet after each

Decides to stay still this time.

And with a kick of the leg

The runner dashes homeward

The catcher, unprepared, is too late

The runner slides, the run scores.

His face reveals a grin,

For his task is complete.

He is no longer different than the rest

The run he scores wins the game,

And thus the only thing which now separates

Him from the rest: skill, and nothing but.

Travels With James

February 13, 2010

June 25th, 2005

We left home at 9:30 A.M.  He was used to an early start, but it was a lot harder for me.  We had a two hour drive up to Detroit for an afternoon game.  I was curious why the Tigers were playing the Cubs, since they were in different leagues and all.  “Interleagues,” James told me.  He always knew so much about baseball.  I knew a little bit, but this trip was about him.  The game was exciting, mostly because it was it was the first on the trip and it was James’ first in about two years now, well before he got sick.  Some rookie for the Cubs hit his first home run of his career in the first inning.

The incredible thing is, in the fourth inning, a player for the Tigers hit one a mile, and the second it hit the bat James shouted out “it’s gone.”  I looked over at him, and when the crowd went nuts, he smiled as bright as I’ve seen him in months.  I don’t know how he knew it was going out, but he did.  He had developed incredible sense of his surroundings in the last few weeks…

We stayed around Detroit for a little while but mostly wanted to get a head start towards Chicago.

June 26th, 2005

We stayed at a motel in Chicago last night.  It wasn’t the greatest place in the world, I thought it looked sort of scrappy, but James didn’t mind.  The White Sox had a night game against the Blue Jays.  We had a few hours so I took James to the Navy Pier and he absolutely loved it.  I made a vague comment about there being a play going on in their theater, and to my surprise James wanted to go see it.  We bought tickets to go see Midsummer’s Night Dream.  I wasn’t much of a Shakespeare person but I could tell he was loving it.

James has felt well throughout the trip so far.  I hope we can get through most or all the trip with him feeling this way.  I pray every night he can fight for another day.

June 27th, 2005

Last night’s game wasn’t very close, but it was fun anyways.  The White Sox scored four in the first and another four in the second.  I think they got around 12 or so runs.  James told me that the White Sox were having a fine year and could go on to do very well in the playoffs.  I’d have to remember that and see if his prediction comes true.  The Cubs had a day game we just got back from.  James kept telling me how much he loved Wrigley Field, with the weird outfield fence and its atmosphere.  To me, it was just another stadium, but he could tell it was different.  He must know more than me, but even still, he could see something in the place that I couldn’t really see.  It was weird being on the other end of that trade.

June 29th, 2005

We headed up to Milwaukee yesterday but had a day off because the series didn’t start until today.  Yesterday wasn’t a very good day, James was starting to feel sick in the car and we had to stop and walk around a store for an hour or so.  He said he didn’t feel much better but that he wanted us to keep going.  He is so strong.  I pray that he can keep going, we’ve only been to three stadiums so far…

We’re going to the stadium in a little bit, but thought I would update that he is feeling a little better, but I’m worried anyways because he was feeling so strong a few days ago.  His spirit is still just as great though.

July 2nd, 2005

It’s been a few days since I’ve written in this, but we’ve been really busy.  The Brewers lost their game against the Marlins 4-2 a few days ago.  Two days ago we went to Minnesota and saw the Twins stomp on the Royals 15-3.   I’d never really heard of anyone on the Royals line-up, to tell you the truth.  James tells me they aren’t very good.  Guess that’s why they got killed.  We almost got a foul ball, too.  We were sitting up in the second deck along the first base side and Justin Morneau hits a bullet and it comes straight at us.  Lands about six seats to our right.  It was sort of scary though, cause I know James wouldn’t have been able to really duck for cover had it came towards him, so I stuck my arms out in front of his face for protection.  I expected him to ask what was going on, but I could hear under his breath mumble that “we almost had that one.”

Anyways, we took our time yesterday.  The Royals were still on a road trip so we had to backtrack a little bit and go back to St. Louis.  We spent most of yesterday driving, but I did take James to see the Field of Dreams in Iowa.  It wasn’t too out of our way, but it did take me a little bit of time finding it.  I had to stop in Iowa City to ask for directions but it didn’t take too long to get there after that.  I’d only seen parts of the movie, but James knew it perfectly, like he did just about every good baseball movie out there.  He described to me the whole story of the Black Sox Scandal and the World Series of 1919, making the same comments with the same voice inflection as in the movie.  He told me there was a book on it too, called Shoeless Joe.

My heart sank a little bit when I heard that.  A few months ago, when he was staying in the hospital, he would get tons of baseball books sent to him from friends and family.  I remember Shoeless Joe being one of the ones he had stored away there.  He kept the really good ones he’d always wanted to read for last.  He got through most of them, but his eyesight gave out before he ever read that one.  I remember going to visit him and seeing it sitting in the corner of the room on a table, where he used to keep the books he hadn’t read yet.  It about broke my heart going to see him and that book sitting there.  When he told me where we were going was a representation of that book, I could have died.  What I wouldn’t give to let him be able to read that book right about now.

This is getting pretty long so I guess I’ll wrap it up.  The Cards, backed by two home runs by Albert Pujols (“He’s leading the National League right now, and it isn’t even close” James would later tell me), narrowly beat the Reds 6-5 today.  Busch Stadium wasn’t as great of experience as some of the other stadiums…it was really warm.  James loved it though, as you’d imagine.  And I love it too, just sitting next to him.  He’s always shouting out random trivia and I swear, he can tell what’s going on more than I can.  I’m starting to believe he can see things that I can’t…

July 3rd, 2005

James wasn’t feeling too good this morning, but by afternoon he was about as good as he’s been on this entire trip.  I’m glad he’s holding up this well after about a week now.  My prayers continue to be answered.

We drove across Missouri today to see the Royals play a nightcap of a double-header against the Tigers.  Now that we’re starting to see teams for a second time now, I recognize some of the players.  I sometimes confuse people together, but James always politely corrects me and also reminds me what particular players did the last time we saw him.  He’s got the greatest memory of anyone I’ve ever met.

A pitcher named Jeremy Bondman threw a beauty today, though James continuously pointed out the hapless Royals’ offense.  Either way, it was a four hit shutout.  He kept a no-hitter into the sixth, but a utility player that even James hadn’t heard of drove one into the gap for a double.  Bondman went on to get the next three straight batters out.  He was on fire tonight, James commented afterward.  We have a pretty far drive through Kansas and into Colorado to see the Rockies play, though they don’t play until the 5th so we have a day or two.  I asked James if there were any random baseball landmarks in Kansas, to which he replied “are there any landmarks in Kansas?”  He was a funny guy, when you got to know him.

July 4th, 2005

It was sort of lucky there wasn’t a game today, because James didn’t feel well throughout the day.  He threw up a few times this morning in the hotel.  I felt terrible, but there wasn’t much I could do but comfort him.  I think he gets embarrassed when he gets sick.  I guess he must feel like he’s holding the trip up.  I try to comfort him, but it gets really hard for him.  He’s a pretty self-sufficient guy, even through all of this he doesn’t want to bother people with his condition.  I prayed for him especially hard this afternoon…

We pressed on through Kansas and made it to Denver around 9 o’clock tonight.  He’s asleep fairly early tonight.  Usually we’d stay up and he would tell me baseball stories or he’d listen to a sports show on the television or something, but he needed some rest.  He looks incredibly peaceful though.  You couldn’t pay me a million bucks right now to wake him up.

July 5th, 2005

James still wasn’t feeling very well but we went to today’s game anyways.  It was a night game against the Giants.  It was scoreless into the seventh inning.  James kept remarking how it was a hitter’s park and he was surprised at the score.  I don’t really know what makes a stadium a hitter’s park or not, but I wasn’t going to question him.  The Giants hit a solo shot in the seventh and eighth to win 2-0.  “Shockingly low score for Coors Field,” James said.  He’s a walking baseball encyclopedia. He really is.

All the driving throughout this trip is starting to get to me.  I wasn’t really bothered by it, since I knew this was all for the greatest cause I could ever imagine, but even still, it’s many hours a day through hundreds of miles of interstate driving.  I made a passing comment about how we had a really long drive ahead of us to Seattle, the longest of the entire trip, and that I wasn’t really looking forward to driving throughout the night (the Mariners played the last game of their home-stand tomorrow and we had to get there by the following evening).  James, always thinking of everyone but himself, told me that we could skip Seattle and go straight on to San Francisco.  I instantly regretted saying anything.

This trip was for him, about him, I was just here to keep him company, to be an audience for his stories, to help him to his seat…And suddenly, I felt like I had betrayed that notion, even if just for a passing moment.  Nevermore would I complain about any of this.  It was a privilege to drive him to Seattle, if it meant hours and hours behind the wheel to myself while he slept.  It was a tough few hours, but I looked over at him, and in his sleep I could tell he was dreaming about baseball.  Somewhere, he was hitting a ground-rule double, or laying a perfect bunt, or pitching in Game Seven of the World Series.  He was succeeding at whatever he was dreaming about, that much I did know…

July 6th, 2005

The game tonight was exciting, for what we got to see of it.  In the seventh inning, James began to feel sick.  He threw up again in the restroom and we both decided to leave the game early.  I could tell it was killing him more emotionally than it was physically for him to leave.  I bet he’d never left a baseball game early in his life.  “I’m a true fan.  I stay until the last out, regardless of the score, even if the game was decided innings ago…” he said as we made our way through the parking lot.  I continued to try to comfort him, but when it came to baseball, especially on this trip, he would remain inconsolable about that kind of thing.  I’m not sure who won the game, though that was about the last thing on my mind on our drive back to the hotel.  We had two days until the Giants were scheduled to play a night game, the last until the All-Star break.  We’ll try to get through Oregon to somewhere in northern California then get a good start on the morning of the 8th to head to San Francisco.

July 8th, 2005

James again wasn’t feeling too great during the game, but he wasn’t about to leave two games in a row prematurely.  We waited out a 35 minute rain-delay after the fourth inning and about a million pitching changes later in the game, which the Giants eventually won after nearly four hours.  I think the score was around 13 or so to 10.  I could tell James was really starting to get worse during the ninth.  When the last out was recorded, he couldn’t wait to get out of there.  That really worried me.  Earlier in the trip he would often stay for a little bit after the game.  He’d say something like “I just want to breathe the air of baseball just a little bit more.”  It was something you don’t normally hear from a kid his age.  I guess he wasn’t really a kid, but I always used to call him kid, so it’s sort of a habit.

He was unusually quiet on the trip tonight back to the hotel.  He couldn’t really get to sleep.  I asked him if he had any stories for me tonight, to which he replied “not right now.”  I’m beginning to feel guilty, like I’m dragging him around the United States with his health dangling so dangerously.  I feel like his life is hanging on strings with myself as the puppet-master, and I’m shaking my hands vigorously and I can’t get myself to stop.  He kept telling me though that I was doing the right thing and that he wanted to keep going, though.  It’s becoming increasingly more difficult to oblige his requests yet continue, knowing his health is rapidly deteriorating in front of our eyes.  I was getting scared, but he pressed me into continuing.  This trip was about him, and there wasn’t time to waste…due to the nature of the trip, we were constantly on the move.  I feel like having a day or two to rest in between each game would help, but most of the time its day after day.  A long, grueling drive, a baseball game (which, even though I love baseball, is seemingly longer each game), another drive, a night in a hotel, and then more driving.  I was getting scared.  I wanted him to finish out this trip, but his strength isn’t improving.  I’m praying especially hard but I don’t know what else to do but continue driving.  Each night I call mom to tell her how it’s going, and each night she tells me to do whatever he tells me.  If he feels good enough to go on, then go on.

As it stands, we have a few days off now to relax until the All-Star break is over until we have to drive down to Los Angeles.  We should have been stopping at Oakland next, which is right near San Francisco, but they start off the second half of the season on the road.  We had to drive down to Los Angeles, backtrack to Oakland, then go back down southward to Los Angeles again to see the Angels play.  Now that I had a few days to relax, driving wouldn’t bother me so much once we were back on the road again.  This all-star break couldn’t have come at a better time.  I just hope James stays strong enough to continue going.  With how his health and stamina has dropped the last few days, I fear a few days off will be more detrimental than helpful.  I’m praying, God, please, PLEASE, let him get through this.  Please, God.  Please.

July 11th, 2005

James is not doing very good today.  He was starting to shake a little bit this afternoon, and I was close to taking him to a doctor, but he says he’s alright and that we’ll see how he’s doing after a few hours.  He’s resting now, and the all-star game is tonight.  “I haven’t missed one yet,” he tells me.  We’ll put it on tv and watch it.  Please God, give him strength.  We have so much farther to go.

July 13th, 2005

James is in the hospital.  I’m not sure exactly what is happening, but I’m praying for him.  I took him in here earlier today and he’s still in there and I’m out here in the waiting room praying.  This is incredibly frightening.  Please God, please, tell me this isn’t the end.  It cannot be the end.

July 13th, 2005

James is pretty stable now.  He’s going to stay here a few days.  They understand about what we’re doing and they think he will be strong enough to press on for a few more days, they tell me.  They tell me that, for his mental sake, there is no use in him staying at a hospital like this and that we’re doing the right thing for him.  We’re a day or two behind now but it will be ok.  I’m just glad James is doing better.  I’m praying so hard for him, I’ve never felt like I’ve needed God so much in James and I’s life as much as I have now.  This is almost unbearable.  I prayed before this trip that we would get through it without having problems like this, but its uncontrollable.  I feel terrible for him, but there isn’t much I can do than continue to support him and keep going.

July 14th, 2005

We’re on our way to Los Angeles right now to see the Dodgers play an afternoon game against the Diamondbacks.  James is feeling better than he has in a week, he tells me.  We’ve stopped at a restaurant in a little town off the highway really quick.  He said he really wanted to go to a diner for some reason.  They don’t have many diners here in the West Coast.  James and I always went to one in our home city.  He loves places like this.  I’m not going to write much here since we’re going to be leaving soon.

July 14th, 2005

I felt really anxious taking him to another game for the first time in several days, but the game went without incident, fortunately.  The Dodgers lost, 3-2.  The Diamondbacks scored all three in the eighth, and it seemed like the fans were going to explode by the end of the inning.  James tells me they are incredibly loyal fans.  He told me to wait until Philadelphia, though to see the real crazy ones.  It amazed me hearing him say that.  Even through an incredibly painful and tough week, unknowing if the trip would continue or not, he mentioned being in Philadelphia, which was one of the last places on the trip.  He was going to go through with this to the end.  He was so strong.

I wish I shared his passion for baseball with just about anything.  He cared so much about the game, about its past, its history, its stories, its legacy.  Baseball, it seems, is keeping him alive right now, above anything else.  He knew so much, retained so much information.  The way he talks about it, you can just tell how much he loves the game.  As we were driving back to Oakland, I began to realize something.  It wasn’t just baseball he cared and loved so much, it was life.  Baseball was just a representation of life, with its ups and downs, twists and turns, no day exactly like another.  It was life that James truly cared so much about.  Sure, baseball was his love, but it was a lot more than that.  I could tell.  He loved life so much, it pained me to see things going like it was.  James watched as his life was coming to a depressingly abrupt end, and he loved life more and more with each passing day.  He had so much to live for.  I wish I shared his passion for life.  I wish we all did.  We could learn a lot and be a lot happier if we cared as much as James did…

July 15th 2005

James says he isn’t feeling nearly as good as he did yesterday, but that he feels sort of good enough to get through some or all of the game tonight.  I was feeling a little bit more relaxed after a great game yesterday, but now the anxiety is coming back…I never know when he’s going to feel good or bad, when his health is going to suddenly drop like it did earlier this week.  It scares the hell out of me.  I hope the game goes well tonight.

This afternoon I took James to a huge bookstore we passed along the way for a surprise.  I led him to the sports section, and fortunately, they had a copy of Shoeless Joe.  I bought it, telling him I would read him a chapter or two from it each day.  I then saw the book, well over 200 pages, only had about four or five chapters, but I promised him I’d read him some condensed sections of it each day at least.  I was about to drive out of the parking lot, but he insisted I read him the opening part of it then.

I could tell why James wanted to read it so badly, it was truly a great read, even through the first part of it.  The book was such a fantasy, about baseball and yet about much more.  We didn’t say it out loud, but I could tell we both understood that our trip seemed so similar to Shoeless Joe.  We were traveling around the United States, going to each ballpark, seeing hundreds of players and driving thousands of miles to experience hours of baseball every day.  It too felt like a fantasy.  I read through the first ten pages or so, and I told him we’d better get a move on towards Oakland.

I’d heard James tell me the story of Joe Jackson and how he got banned from baseball, and the story was brought up several times throughout the opening of the book.  I was curious, and though I was sure the book would answer me, I knew James could tell me now.  “Did they ever try to unban him?  Clear his record, maybe?”  He responded back, “those motions died with him.”  When James spoke about baseball, he had a very positive, distinct voice about him.  With those words, however, came a slight hesitation, and his voice had a bit of wispiness to it.  I was sorry I’d asked.

I hope the game goes well today.  God, please keep him strong. Please…

July 16th, 2005

James is in the hospital again.  He was even worse today than he was the first day he went in one a week ago.  I’m shaking uncontrollably right now.  I’m really scared.  Please, God, not yet.  Please, not yet.  I understand that it must happen, I’ve accepted that, but please God, not yet.  Don’t do it yet, Please.

July 16th, 2005

James is not doing well, they tell me.  God, I’m so scared.  I could barely tell mother on the phone what was happening.  I can barely write this.  Please, God…

July 16th, 2005

They don’t think James is going to make it through the night.  I can’t believe this is happening.

July 17th, 2005

He is still not doing very well, they aren’t sure how much longer he is going to last or if he is going to get any better for now.

July 17th, 2005

James couldn’t pull through.  He is gone.  So am I.  I am gone, dead.  I feel nothing.  Baseball, Shoeless Joe, Oakland, California, Seattle, baseball, pitchers, batters, nothing.  It is all for nothing.  James is gone.  Why, God?

July 19th, 2005

I’m being flown back to Ohio.  His body is being transported as well.  I don’t really know what is going to happen to my car but at this point I don’t really car.  I couldn’t drive it back to Ohio if it meant my life.  Maybe if we hadn’t back-tracked to Oakland, we should have just kept going through.  We were doing ok when we were going forward, but maybe going back disturbed his psyche or something.  Goddamnet.

July 27th, 2005

I swear to God, if I hear one more goddamn word about the game of baseball, I’m going to go insane.  I’m not going to watch another goddamn game for as long as I live.

August 28th, 2005

I’ve decided that the best way to give me some closure with this whole ordeal is to finish out the trip.  I ended up paying for my car to be stored there until I could figure out what to do with it, but I’m flying out back to Oakland.  I’m going to try to go through the rest of the schedule.  I have about a month.

September, 13th, 2005

I’m on my way to New York right now.  I have a game with the Mets versus the Nationals this afternoon then luckily the Yankees have a game tonight.  I should be able to get through these today then hit the last five before the end of the season.

September 20th, 2005

Today is my last game.  The Indians play a night game against the Twins tonight.  The Indians was supposed to be our last game on the trip because it was his favorite team.  I can’t even write his name.  He’s rooting for the Indians right now though, I’ll tell you that.

November 15th, 2005

I just finished Shoeless Joe.  James would have loved it.  I wish to God he could have read it.  Since the day I bought it, I’ve carried it around everywhere I’ve gone.  It’s my one true connection to James I’ll always have.  I’m always going to carry this around.  I’ll never get rid of it, never.

January 20th, 2006

I know I haven’t written this in a long time, but you know what, I’m really starting to anticipate opening day. Indians play the Tigers on the third of April.  You bet I’ll be there.

June 25th, 2006

Today’s the one year anniversary of the first day of our trip.  I know that I made his last few weeks incredibly special.  I will live the rest of my life satisfied of that.  I started reading Shoeless Joe again.  “My father said he saw him years later playing in a tenth-rate commercial league in a textile town in Carolina, wearing shoes and an assumed name.”  They’re talking about Joe Jackson, but every time I read that, I can’t help but think that somewhere in heaven, James is dreaming about playing in a league like that.  And I’ll bet you everything I have that he’s doing well, too.

Baseball’s Early Umpires and Babe Ruth Stories

February 13, 2010

In the early days of baseball, officiators of the game weren’t so much umpires as much as they were someone who would watch the action and occasionally settle an on-field dispute, whether it deal with a call or not [I recently participated in an exhibition game against a traveling group of players who “played old-time baseball; rules of 1845”. The officiator did not make any calls.  Also, he stood way off to the side, somewhat where a modern third base coach would sit.]

It was thus agreed that there would need to be an official umpire making non-partisan decisions over the game.  With only one official instead of the modern four (or six, in playoffs [or zero, as 2009’s playoffs proved]), players soon learned how to take advantage of situations.

Sam Crawford, who still holds the record of most career triples nearly a century later, used to “run with one eye on the ball and the other on the umpire.”  Therefore, if an umpire was watching the action in the outfield or concentrating closely to a play on second base, a runner heading third could bypass the bag completely, and run in a curving path from the shortstop area to home plate without ever touching third.  With the umpire’s back turned, much to the dismay and exclamations from the other team, he had no way to refute that the runner rounded the bag fairly and scored legitimately.  Such was old-time baseball.

In one instance, Daniel Orkent and Steve Wulf write:  “In Cincinnati at the turn of the century, Crawford told Lawrence Ritter, the great National League first baseman Jake Beckley attempted this subterfuge and came around to score without a play even being made on him.  Umpire Tim Hurst, whose attention had been directed elsewhere, nonetheless called the runner out: “You got here too quick,” Hurst told Beckley.

Years later, towards the beginning of the 20th century, two umpires began officiating each game.  One particular young umpire was Billy Evans.  He is said to have been working a game in Chicago with Tim Hurst when rough spectators began throwing bottles and other items onto the field.  Evans, working one of his first games ever, looked toward Hurst for help during the chaos.  However, Hurst kept the game going all the way to the finish.  After the game concluded, Hurst told Evans, “They [the spectators] got no control.  When the weather warms up, watch out—they’re deadly at a hundred yards.”

Coincidentally, Evans was pelted in the head by a rogue bottle but five months later.  After a long recovery, he umpired another twenty-two years eventually working off the field with the Indians, Red Sox, and Tigers.

Perhaps the most famous umpire of all time was Bill Klem, a no-nonsense gentleman who took umpiring very seriously.  No other man did more to revolutionize the profession than Klem, best known for introducing arm motions for making calls behind the plate and developing a chest-protector to be worn underneath the shirt.

In 1905, Klem umpired his first game in which he encountered John McGraw.  After ejecting the manager of the Giants, McGraw replied, “I’m going to get your job, you busher.”

Klem, a man who entered baseball during a time of roughness and brash behavior, calmly spoke:  “Mr. Manager, if it’s possible for you to get my job away from me, I don’t want it.”

Klem went on to manage for 36 more years, carrying himself with a recognizable sense of arrogance and self-confidence.  As told in Baseball Anecdotes, “unhappy with a called strike, Frank Frisch turned and looked at Klem.  The umpire, as Frisch later told the story, responded immediately: ‘Don’t ever do that again, young man.  Don’t look back when I call a strike.  Just you concentrate on your hitting and you’ll get the greatest job from the greatest umpire that ever lived.’”

Bill Klem, oftentimes referred to as “The Old Arbitrator”, worked in an incomprehensible eighteen World Series’, spanning from 1908 to 1940.  Perhaps the most famous of all the Klem stories is his exit from baseball:

“St. Louis was playing the Dodgers, and when Billy Herman made a tag play on a Cardinals runner at second, Klem called him out.  As the runner protested that Herman had never actually tagged him, Klem turned and walked away.  ‘I’m almost certain Herman tagged him,’ the umpire said to himself.  ‘Then,’ he recalled later, ‘I almost wept.  For the first time in all my career, I only ‘thought’ a man was out.’  Immediately after the game, Bill Klem retired.”

* *

Babe Ruth, after being diagnosed with cancer in 1946, appeared at Yankee Stadium for Babe Ruth Day on April 27th, 1947.  After a short period of remission from his illness, he became sick once again during the summer of 1948.  He came back to Yankee Stadium once more on June 13th, for the 25th anniversary of the stadium.

His male nurse assisted him into his Yankee uniform, and he stood in the middle of a posed shot with other Yankees from the ’23 team, with Joe Dugan and Wally Pipp (best known for sitting out and allowing Lou Gehrig to play 1st base, ultimately starting Gehrig’s improbable consecutive played games streak) placing their hands on his shoulders.

W.C. Heinz wrote, upon Ruth’s introduction to the crowd, Ruth walked out into the cauldron of sound he must have known better than any other man.

After a short speech, Ruth walked back into the clubhouse.  Dugan accompanied him.

“How are things?” Dugan asked.

“Joe, I’m gone,” Ruth replied. “I’m gone, Joe.”  The men embraced, in tears.

One of the more famous stories of Ruth’s funeral involved Joe Dugan and Waite Hoyt, two of the pallbearers.  It was a very warm day, and Hoyt turned to Dugan and quipped that he could use a cold beer.  Dugan responded, appropriately, “So could the Babe.”

Babe was no ordinary man.  Ruth possessed a magnetism that was positively infection.  When he entered a clubhouse or a room, when appeared on the field, it was as if he was the whole parade.  There seemed to be flags waving, bands playing constantly…

– Waite Hoyt

Ken Griffey Jr. and the Synthesis of Baseball

February 13, 2010

Baseball is largely a game of precision, exactness, and most of all synthesis.  There are connections in the sport which I fail to recognize in other games, the association of anecdotes, of players past and present, of the game’s history.  The beauty of baseball is such that while at the ballpark watching one game, they can also be viewing many other games, with coinciding histories of the past reinventing itself within the present time.

Baseball has a unique and prolonging sense of timelessness.  It has lived through, among many other things, a string of racial segregation, a thrown World Series, two world wars, the greediness and ineptitude of the owners, commissioners, and players, the rising development of other sports, and most recently the constant barrage of the steroid age.  As George Vecsey wrote, “it endures.”

As the 2010 season approaches, I reflect on the past two decades of baseball in a retrospectively negative light.  A 1994 players strike cast a dark shadow over the game, and a plausible argument can be made that it led to the ultimate downfall of the Montreal Expos.  The strike resulted in a cancelled World Series (the first in 90 years) and a subsequent public repudiation of the game’s fan-base.

For many years, baseball had been shifting into a slugging era, defined by brute force and the rise of the home run’s popularity.  Pulling itself out of the effects of the strike, this new style of strength and “intensity” brought about a rise of public appeal to the game.  The catalyst of this trend was the 1998 season, often considered the greatest year in baseball history.

The sweet melody of the ’98 season must be sung once more:  Roger Maris’ record of 61 home runs in 1961 had been regarded as virtually unreachable for decades prior, but throughout the 1990s the development of the power generation put the mark as a possibility in the public eye.  The ill-fated season of ’94 was cut 50 games short, and Matt Williams of the San Francisco Giants with 43 home runs was well on pace to challenge Maris’ record.  Three years later, Mark McGwire and Ken Griffey Jr. would battle each other as they reached 58 and 56 home runs respectively.

The stage was set for the great home run race of ’98.  McGwire had improved from 39 home runs in ’95 to 52 a year later, and again to 58 the year after that.  Griffey Jr. hit 49 and 56 in ’96 and ’97 as well.  Suddenly, another player would enter the chase as well, Sammy Sosa of the Chicago Cubs.  McGwire would open the ’98 season, his first with the Cardinals, with four straight games with a home run.  Despite tailing off slightly throughout August, he would finish the historic season with 70 homers, besting Sosa’s 66 and Junior’s meager 56.  In retrospect, Griffey Jr.’s involvement in the chase is largely forgotten, overshadowed by the Ruthian efforts of McGwire’s eventual record and Sosa’s unbelievable June, where he hit a record 20 home runs.

As it would turn out, Junior would play only one more year for the Mariners, who saw two Divisional championships in 1995 and ’97 during his tenure in Seattle.  He would, however, leave behind a definitive mark on the American League before moving to the Cincinnati Reds in 2000.  In the 1990s, Griffey spanked the A.L. to the tune of 10 consecutive All-Star game appearances and Gold Glove Awards, seven Silver Slugger awards between 1991 and 1999, and the illusive Most Valuable Player award in 1997.

Safeco Field in Seattle is a vast, yet quaint ballpark built to replace the Mariners’ former stadium, the Kingdom.  Its completion in 1999 featured much of what the date would suggest:  a connection to the 20th century while fulfilling the futuristic style of the modern baseball stadium.  Safeco Field features a brick façade, much the front of the timeless Ebbets Field of Brooklyn in generations past.  The field itself is natural grass, garnering the approval of both baseball purists like myself and the present fans.

However, not quite so anachronistically, there exists a retractable roof which acts as an umbrella for the entire stadium.  The refreshment selection is vast and beyond traditional selection, featuring an aptly named sushi dish called the “Ichiroll”, in homage to the team’s Japanese outfielder Ichiro Suzuki.  Safeco Field also contrasts the bandbox appearance of many traditional stadiums, identifying itself as a very pitchers-friendly ballpark.

Ken Griffey Jr. is but another prime example of the synthesis which exists within the game.  Junior was born in the small, smog-bound city of Donora, Pennsylvania in 1969, where he lived until he moved to Cincinnati at the age of six.  The sleepy town also happened to have produced another legend of baseball, Stanley Frank Musial nearly 50 years earlier.  Both grew up to be two of the greatest left-handed hitters of all time, encompassing the attributes of power and average throughout their careers.  They also had 262 stolen bases between them, invoking a definite mark of speed, as well.  Not yet convinced?  They shared the same birthday, November 21st.

During his nine season tenure with the Cincinnati Reds, Junior still hit 210 home runs with a respectable .270 batting average.  He was clearly not the same hitter that America had loved throughout the 90s, however.  Plagued by health, he suffered season-ending injuries in 2002, 2003, 2004, and 2005.  His slugging percentage in ’02 was his worst in seven years.  Junior’s ubiquitous presence over the game appeared to diminish with each passing year.  Between the ’02 and ’04 season, he missed 260 of 486 games due to his sustained injuries.

In 2005, however, Griffey’s health resurged, bringing him back to what many fans believed was his original form.  With a season batting average over .300, his first since 1997, he hit 35 home runs in 128 games (his most since 2000).  He received the honor of the Comeback Player of the Year, and despite ending the season in September due to a strained tendon in his left foot, he appeared to be enduring the wrath of injuries and was returning to form.  In 2006, he batted a mere .252, the worst of his career up to that point.

It is difficult for fans to watch the progression of their heroes over the course of several decades.  Griffey was the second youngest player in the American League in his rookie 1989 season, but throughout his time in Cincinnati, he grew older, slower, his bat speed not quite as sharp in previous seasons.  Junior’s digression is reminiscent of players such as Ted Williams, Babe Ruth, and Ty Cobb, whose growing age was reflected in their playing styles with flashes of the past darting out from their bodies.  Griffey still could hit home runs, 27 in his 2006 season, but his quick-paced style and agility was replaced by aging competence and fragility.  His career average of 11 stolen bases per year could have been much higher, if it were not for but three between the years of 2002 and 2006.  It is a harsh, depressing, but inevitable lesson for the spectator.

If we allow, however, for even average years for Griffey to make up for the lost time due to injuries and other obstacles, perhaps a greater picture of Junior’s career can be ascertained.  In 1994, Griffey had 40 home runs in just 111 games before the players-strike cut the season early.  Most of his 1995 season was missed after breaking a wrist crashing into a wall.  Between the years of 2001 and 2004, he missed two full seasons worth of games due to reoccurring injuries.  Excluding many other seasons where did not play in upwards of thirty or forty games for similar reasons, we are left with three full seasons of games, much of which it can be argued was before the major deterioration of his skill (which many fans contend was caused by the injuries).

After the 2009 season, Junior had a total of 630 home runs.  He averaged in his career 39 home runs per season, despite over half of his years hitting under 30.  Thus, by giving three full seasons of statistics, his career home run total comes staggeringly close to matching or superseding Henry Aaron or Barry Bonds.  With a career average of well over 100 runs batted in per season, three seasons of RBIs would put his already impressive 1829 total to over 2100, putting him in at least the top three career totals in baseball history.  Griffey’s career statistics are already phenomenal, but without injuries and skill digression, fans are left to wonder: what if?

For years, Junior expressed his desire to finish his career back in Seattle.  After spending the latter portion of the 2008 season with the Chicago White Sox, hitting a meager three home runs and only 18 throughout the entire season, his wish would be granted.  Upon accepting a contract offer in February the following year, Griffey would play what many believed would be his final season in Seattle for 2009.  His debut for the Mariners that April was more than fitting:  he went one for two with a home run, his 400th as a Seattle Mariner.  Griffey was back, regardless of his current state.  Griffey was back.

I watched on that October as my Texas Rangers played their final series of the season in Seattle.  After flirting with the divisional league throughout the year, they’d been removed from playoff contention for a few weeks by then, and I took in what little Rangers baseball I could absorb before the perpetual end of the season.  The Mariners were 83-76, securing an improbable winning season just one year after finishing a dismal 61-101 the season prior.  Also locked out of the pennant race, it was a series of sleepy divisional games between two teams who, while finishing out their season, found themselves optimistic from their successful year and longed for the following one.

The Rangers took the first game, but fueled by Junior’s last home run of the season in the middle game, the Mariners tied the series.  It was his 630th of his career, currently 5th on the all-time list.  On October 4th, I watched as 32,360 others came to Safeco Field to see the Mariners’ last game of the season.  What they were really there to see was what was predicted as Griffey’s last career game.  His retirement had been doubted, then presumed, and questioned throughout the entirety of the 2009 season, and with the Mariners’ success came a more hopeful wish for the continued longevity of his career.

Junior represented the aged competency and adequacy, surrounded by players nearly half his age, representing the hopefulness of youth.  He looked upon them with experience, with wisdom and stories, reflecting on his career while the rest had theirs entirely ahead of them.  The synthesis of baseball, whether it a grandfather and grandchild in the stands admiring their interlocking generations or an aging ballplayer staring down a youthful pitcher, is one of the true constants of the game.

In the second inning, Griffey faced Scott Feldman of the Rangers, and was promptly struck out looking.  Once again leading off, he lined out to the pitcher in his next at bat in the fourth.  A rally was brewing throughout the bottom of the fifth, and following three straight hits and a three-run inning, Junior lined out to center field.  He was 0 for three.

The crowd grew impatient, and yet, they realized the reality of the situation.   Griffey was batting only .213 over 117 games, easily his worst of his career.  A hit, much less a home run, could not be conjured up in thin air.  It takes an incredible amount of skill to connect the bat to the ball in such a way to produce a base hit, and after failing three consecutive times to begin the game, I and 32,360 others knew the odds were against him.  In “Casey at the Bat”, the hope “sprung eternal deep in the human breast” of the Mudville fans, who hoped that the mighty Casey would merely get a chance to hit.  Griffey had already had several chances, but had not yet appeased us.  Unlike those in Earnest Thayer’s epic tale of the Mudville Nine, where a “straggling few got up to go in deep despair,” we waited, hopeful, wishful, praying for the rightful end (if it were to be the end).

The Mariners were ahead 4-1 until the Rangers scored two in the seventh to make it a one run game.  Spectators were not so much anxious of the score, but if the following inning would feature the long awaited Griffey at-bat.  He was to bat sixth in the bottom half of the inning, but despite a lead-off single by Josh Wilson, pitching replacement Darren O’Day shut the rest of the Mariners down in order.

The top half of the next inning, although only three Rangers came to bat, seemed to drag on.  We were almost becoming disinterested in the game, awaiting the eventual fourth and what looked to be Ken Griffey Jr.’s final at bat.  Jose Lopez led off the bottom half of the eighth, and with that the Rangers changed pitchers once again, bringing in southpaw C.J. Wilson.  He would take on Junior, the formidable left-handed batter for 21 seasons, who many older spectators believed portrayed elements of Stanley Frank Musial from generations past.

On the first pitch of the at-bat, Griffey uncoiled his body, turning his wrists and swung, the same swing fans and teammates had relied on, his opponents winced at, and his pitchers loathed.  His bat connected to the ball as sweet as it ever had, and the ball sailed into centerfield.  Base hit.

The Mariners swiftly brought in youngster Michael Saunders to pinch run for the legend who trotted off the field as satisfied as perhaps he’d ever felt as a ballplayer.  Junior waved to the crowd, who responded with their adoration and deep respect for the slugger they’d known since his first game in early 1989.

Ken Griffey Jr., with one base hit, seemed to bridge the gap between the transitioning age of baseball.  He resembles the very stadium he played in, the connections of the old and the new, the past and the future, all while playing and living in the present.  Synthesis is magical thing.  The future of baseball, trying its best to cast an evil eye on the depths of the steroid era, looks to players like Griffey to help move this transition, to show us what we were, what we are, and we what we can still be.  He is timeless, as many of the classic players before him are.

When John Updike wrote about Ted Williams’ last home run on his final at-bat of his career, he concluded that Williams had faced the little death that athletes faced, and had quit.  Griffey, however, has discussed coming back to the Mariners for the 2010 season.  We will watch and cheer him again, hoping and wishing for however long the Kid continues playing.  He and other players throughout the generations have lived on in our hearts, and represent what is amazing about the game of baseball, its timelessness, its consistency, its constant mark on our lives.  It will live on.  Baseball endures.

Joe DiMaggio – The Streak

February 13, 2010

”DiMaggio was horribly green when he reached New York.  When a reporter asked him for a quote, he thought it was some sort of soft drink.”

– Daniel Orkent and Steve Wulf, Baseball Anecdotes

On the afternoon of July 17th, Joe DiMaggio and teammate Lefty Gomez entered a taxi-cab in Cleveland as they headed to Municipal Stadium.  The cab driver recognized DiMaggio, and stated that he had a feeling if Joe didn’t get a hit in his first time up, Cleveland was going to stop him that night.

“What the hell is this?  Why are you trying to do, jinx him?” Gomez snapped back.

* * *

Who can run and bat and throw?  Who hits the ball both high and low?  Who’s better than his brother Joe?  Dominic DiMaggio!

The New York Yankees had become the first team in Major League Baseball to win four consecutive championships, their final in the streak coming in 1939.  That year’s club rivaled the ’27 Yankees, winning 106 and swept the Reds in the World Series.  Fans everywhere could often be heard shouting ”Break up the Yankees!”

By May of 1941, however, the Yankees had fallen to fourth place in the American League (at the time, there were no divisions, but rather eight teams in both the American and National Leagues with the league champions meeting in the Series).  Lou Gehrig had been ill for several years by then, and on June 2nd passed away.  The same day, DiMaggio extended his streak of consecutive games with a hit to 24.

Two players shared the Yankee hitting streak record:  Earle Combs and Roger Peckinpaugh both hit in 29-straight games.  With a single off of shoulder of Luke Appling of the White Sox, one of Gehrig’s luckier hits helped him break the club record.   He then needed eighth-inning hits in games 36 and 38 to keep the streak going.  In the latter game, Yankee teammate Tommy Henrich bunted, to protect himself from hitting into a double-play ending the inning and perhaps giving DiMaggio no chance to bat.  Joe proceeded to double in the following at-bat.

One particularly famous anecdote involving the streak occurred in between a double header against the Senators.  George Sisler’s American League consecutive games streak had been tied by DiMaggio in the first game, but in between games a fan rushed onto the field, ran into the dugout, stole Joe’s favorite bat and disappeared back into the seats.  Henrich happened to be using another DiMaggio bat, and with it Joe broke the record in the second game.  He famously uttered after the game, “I wish that guy would return it.  I need it more than he does.”

On July 1st, during a doubleheader with the Red Sox at home, DiMaggio, still using Henrich’s bat, hit a chopper to Jim Tabor, who wildly fired the ball past the first basemen.  As Daniel Orkent and Steve Wulf, writers of Baseball Anecdotes [where the basis of this story comes from] tell it:  “It was a borderline call, and Dan Daniel of the New York World-Telegram, ordinarily a tough scorer, ruled it a hit. ‘Damn you, DiMaggio,’ Daniel hollered in the press box.  ‘I gave you a hit this time, but everything has to be clean from now on.’  It was the only hit he got in that game.

The next day, with Wee Willie Keeler’s major league record of 44-straight games tied, DiMaggio reached immortality with a fifth-inning home run.  Orkent and Wulf point out that he seemingly he relaxed after that, batting .545 in the 11 games after breaking the record.

Through Chicago and St. Louis, he kept the streak alive.  He hit successfully against the Indians in the first game of a series in Cleveland, putting the streak at 56 consecutive games with a hit.  It was the second game of the series, on July 17th, DiMaggio stepped into cab in downtown Cleveland as they made their way to the ballpark.  Despite the negativity, Joe smiled to the driver and left him a decent-sized tip.

Ken Keltner’s famous defensive plays in the first and seventh inning at third-base kept Joe hitless into the eighth inning.  He had successfully and impressively stopped DiMaggio from reaching first, and for his efforts he now remains a curious piece of trivia.  The legendary Lou Boudreau, gracefully prowling his position between second and third, played a tricky bounce and the unlucky DiMaggio hit into a double play.  The streak, considered to be the most impressive feat in sports history, was over.  It is difficult to be upset with oneself after achieving such a daunting task, but DiMaggio, ever the sportsman, failed to show any sort of negative reaction whatsoever.  “There was no kicking of dirt, no shaking of the head.”

“Well,” Joe stated later, “that’s over.”

One often forgotten fact about the 1941 season for DiMaggio was that, the day after his streak ended, he began another hitting streak, this time lasting just 16-games.  Despite its inherent impressiveness, that streak paled in comparison.

Between May 2nd and August 3rd, DiMaggio reached safely in every game, an unprecedented feat.  The Yankees, despite their slow start, got hot.  Most definitely motivated by Joe’s effectiveness, ran away with the pennant, topping the Red Sox (who finished in 2nd place) by an astounding 17 games.  All this came from a team who at the beginning of the streak was in 4th place.

DiMaggio was named MVP over Ted Williams, who in 1941 batted .406.  John Updike, a loyal Red Sox fan himself, later wrote in his essay Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu, “His basic offense against the fans has been to wish that they weren’t there…Hence his refusal to tip his cap to the crowd or turn the other cheek to newsmen.  It has been a costly theory.  It has probably cost him, among other evidences of good will, two MVP awards, which are voted by reporters, but he has held to it from his rookie year on.”

Joe was later presented, to his surprise, a silver cigar humidor which featured him in mid-swing.  On one side was the number 56, the number of games of his illustrious streak, and the number 91 on the other, which signified the total amount of hits during the same span.  It read, “Presented to Joe DiMaggio by his fellow players on the New York Yankees to express their admiration for his consecutive-game hitting record, 1941.”

DiMaggio is best known for his gentleman nature in a game which featured so many athletes which contrasted him.  He was remarkably humble, but as Orkent and Wulf wrote, he knew his impact on the game of baseball.

“The Yankees once had a doubleheader in sweltering St. Louis against the last-place Browns, a prospect hardly worth relishing.  Yet DiMaggio made an off-hand comment that he was looking forward to playing that day.

‘In this heat?’ said a writer.  ‘How can you enjoy playing a doubleheader in this heat?’

‘Well,’ said DiMaggio with a glance towards the stands, ‘maybe somebody never saw me before.’”

Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?  Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.”

– Peter, Paul, and Mary, Mrs. Robinson

”I would like to take the great DiMaggio fishing”, the old man said.  “They say his father was a fisherman.”

– Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea

”During that first season, DiMaggio stayed close to his fellow San Francisco Italians, Tony Lazzeri and Frank Crosetti, and there may never have been a less loquacious threesome in Yankees history.  One day newspaperman Jack Mahon sat in the lobby of the Chase Hotel in St. Louis near the three Yankees and noted that a full one hour and 20 minutes of total silence went by.  Then DiMaggio cleared his throat.

‘What did you say?’ asked Crosetti.

‘Shut up,’ said Lazzeri.  ‘He didn’t say nothing.’”

Cleveland Indians

February 13, 2010

In the harsh winters of northeast Ohio there are two certainties of life. First, the weather will simply never improve. The winds will continue to blow with somewhat of a deadly force through the fields and towns like a child blowing on his hot chocolate to keep it from burning his tongue. The other, though not quite as tangible, feels perhaps even colder.  The Cleveland Indians disappointed us for yet another season, and maybe next year, they won’t come up short.

I have come to view partisanship with the Indians as being reminiscent of the American Dream:  you have to be asleep to believe in it.

To be a fan of the Cleveland Indians requires a deep love for baseball and rooting for the home team, or extreme patience which verges on self-denial and ignorance.  As ignorant as fans could be, it is undeniable that they have that love for their team.

A season of baseball closely parallels the progression of a full year of life.  The game begins in the spring, as the players unite from a long, separated winter, just as the grass resurfaces and the flowers grow again.  More importantly, regardless of the preceding season’s results, the new season produces a refreshes sense of optimism.

As the season moves forward into June and July, the climax unfolds and the boys of summer march onward.  And when the season progresses towards its later stages into August, fans still cling to their optimism and their joy of summer while the weather gets slowly colder, the days shorter, the nights longer.

Finally, with the play-offs approaching, the cycle of baseball begins its decline, as many fans are left with the bitterness of the September and October air. Even with the celebration of the post-season and the World Series, the season ends and the parabola of baseball once again reaches the bottom level. We’re left with the darkness of the winter night, dreaming of the following spring when the grass will grow once again, counting down to opening day.

The relationship between the Indians and their fans is complex, comprised of disagreement, appreciation, mutual disappointment, and acceptance.  Even in August, as their beloved team falls further behind their division’s luckier counterparts, fans believe that with improved play and an “easy schedule ahead,” they still have a chance.  They cling themselves, not unlike the outfield mossy wall of Wrigley Field, to the unequivocal belief that the summer is not yet over, the season not quite ready for its descent.

It was therefore natural to believe that when the Indians took a three to one game lead in the American League Championship Series against the dreaded Boston Red Sox that 2007 was finally “the year.”  It was the best Indians club in over a decade.  One victory would put them in the Series, with a chance to put their past behind them (the Indians haven’t won a championship in over a half-century).

Coming off a three game winning streak, the Indians had three chances to win one game.  Just one game.  After the first loss, fans became hopeful.  After the next, anxious.  When the Red Sox won game seven, and subsequently the World Series, Indians fans watched, stunned, heart-broken.

John Updike once wrote that “every true story has an anticlimax.”  If baseball is a tragedy, as Updike would say, the Indians are Hamlet.

The Indians represent the very core of the human spirit:  to dream, to succeed, to fail, and then continue dreaming.  Fundamentally, they have very little three-dimensional to show for it.  However, year after year, the Indians are always coming back, from a missed opportunity, from a losing season, from disappointment.  There remains a plethora of fans whom still cherish the Indians year after year.  And thus, wonder of wonders, the Indians are victorious in their own right.