it's hardly a sport. really. not to the passionate. because what it truly is is a passion. (i'm thinking that although it looks a bit weird, it's ok in the grammatical sense to use two "is" 's together in a sentence.) something we live, breathe, enjoy.
and the first indicator we get that winter's ending (well, aside from the daytona 500) is the start of spring training. followed very shortly by the beginning of the baseball season. the crack of a bat hitting a pitched baseball. the smell of leather from a new baseball glove. the echo of an umpire yelling "play ball". the glare of the sun coming off the top rail of the fence. it's springtime. it's baseball time.
i became a fan early on in my life. seven or eight years old. for some occasion my folds gave me a baseball bat. and a softball. looking back the softball really didn't make sense. an indicator that mom picked these items out, not dad.
the bat was a ted williams model. and i was a student. i studied ted williams. not by getting on the internet and googling him. way too early for that. but i did it the old fashioned way. i went to the library, dug through the card file, jotted down the dewey decimel system sequence for the books that referenced ted williams. read them all. and i was a fan. a ted williams fan. a boston red sox fan. a baseball fan.
i remember so well that dad would take me to work with him on saurdays sometimes. he sold farm equipment, so spent most of his days visiting farmers and talking all things farming. and aside from farming, the hot topic was baseball. and i can remember more than one farm office we'd visit that always had a baseball game on the radio.
back in those days baseball was only on tv on saturday afternoon. other than the world series, of course. and whle dad and mister farmer visited and talked farming and tractors and plows and sled planters, i'd sprawl out on the office couch (there always was one) and listen to the ball game on the radio. and nap. an issue that evolved into a passion of it's own.
i started playing baseball, first i can remember, anyhow, at ate 8. minor league little league, i guess it was called. nothing like t-ball. clifford and i hadn't invented that yet. at 8 years old we were actually pitching and hitting. and fielding. and running. and keeping score. not like the little league minor leagues of today.
i played on the giants. and we won the championship in our league that first year. sadly i was away on vacation when the awards were presented and never received my individual plaque. shucks.
but the best years of our lives back then came when we reach 10 years old. then were allowed to play in the genuine little league. ages 10-12. tryouts, probably in march. some actually didn't get selected. i did.
teams were put together. and once you were on a little league team, you stayed there until you graduated, at age 13, to pony league. which became babe ruth league, which became senior little league, which became, hell, i don't even know what it is now. but no doubt, the best years were the little league years. the orioles.
i can still vividly remember going with the coach to the equipment room. a small storage shed on the little league property where all the equipment was stored. it wasn't affordable for all teams to have their own bats, balls, catching equipment. 3-4 sets of all this was shared by the six or eight teams. and the shed wasn't air conditioned. heat and leather conspired to give that room a really interesting smell. a little infield soil blended in. the smell reeked of baseball.
our teammates became our friends. our teams became our favorites (althought he orioles never supplanted the red sox, they became second, or maybe third behind the cardinals.) but little league was a mere portion of our young baseball lives.
ever see the movie the sandlot ? well, back in our day we had essentially the same thing. we had neighborhood makeshift baseball fields. started out to be my back yard. a bit too rectangular, as a liner down the first or third base lines didn't have to travel very far to become a home run. but there was a nice outfield fence, which made our home runs quite dramatic. schroeder was even strong enough in those early years that he could blast one over our fence, across the alley, and into the neighbor's grape arbor. and the neighbor was nice enough, and probably enough of a baseball fan, that he had no problem with us scaling his fence to retrieve the balls. never occured to us at that point that a schroeder home run ball might be sold on e-bay for a tidy profit. besides, our supply or baseballs was limited, so we continued to use even the most accomplished of them. and for days, weeks, maybe months at a time we had to play with a ball that was kept in tact by electrical tape. duct tape was relatively undiscovered back then.
we eventually moved our baseball field to a huge vacant lot across the street. me, schroeder, billy, mike, the baker boys, probably more, built a pretty nice sandlot field here. we piled up a mound. creating a makeshift dugout in the process. we fashioned a home plate from a quarter inch sheet of plywood. don't remember what the plywood had been in its first life, but i do recall that it was painted tan. we fully intended to paint home plate white, but somehow never got around to it. didn't really matter. rarely did we have enough players at any one time to have a catcher anyhow, so there was never a play at home plate that required a slide. just made the field look cool.
oh, and our field really lacked one important item. grass. it was dirt. and in the early spring, weeds. by mid-may the weeds were gone from the infield area. trampled. they still grew sporadically in the outfield. not so much traffic in one particular spot out there. well, with the exception of where the left fielder stood. and a second one, just a little farther out, where he stood when schroeder came to the plate.
yep. those were the days. and some of my fondest memories. but part of being a person is that you have to grow up. and grow out of little league. and get jobs and such. but i think those of us who were passionate baseball fans back then continued to be so even now. and i'm fortunate enough to have a son that seemes to have inherited my love for the sport. great to be able to share that. and to a degree, to re-live my best years again through his little league experience.
but wait. some claim baseball's a boring sport. ho-hum. a pitch. nothing happens. again. batter will hit one out of every, oh, four pitches? somewhere. not a lot of action. mosly in-action. the person that makes this assertion isn't a baseball fan. and to become one all you have to do is catch an arizona diamondbacks game broadcast when joe garagiola joins them in the booth. (one thing i really miss about living in arizona) (by the way . . . this will surprise any of you who tout football as a much more exciting sport: a group of fans kept statistics on all football games broadcast on tv this season. average tv time for a game was just a hair over three hours. play, time outs, commercials. of course, the clock time for an nfl game is 60 minutes. the surprising discovery here was that the total time where there was some action on the field was 14 minutes. 14 minutes out of three hours. i'm guessing baseball has more action than that.)
joe puts drama in every pitch. heck, he goes deeper than that. he studies the catcher's sign and speculates as to what the pitch will be, where it will be located there, and why the pitcher and/or catcher would choose to locate it there. he scans the defense and explains why the center fielder might be shifted toward right center, or the third baseman might be guarding the line. he watches the runner and gives you the indications he sees that the fella might run, might not. he explains, in short, that there is strategy involved way beyond throwing a ball and hitting it.
pitchers and catchers show up for spring training next week. the rest of the teams the following week. i can't wait to have the games begin. play ball.