“Baseball, it is said, is only a game. True. And the Grand Canyon is only a hole in Arizona. Not all holes, or games, are created equal.” George Will
Well we are deep into football season, while hockey, basketball that World Cup qualifiers move along. Don’t get me wrong. I know these sports well but for me they are not the same as baseball. I have played all of them in school, the biggest mistake that I made as a kid was forsaking organized baseball first for hockey and then for football. I gave up playing my first love for short term flings with other sports.
I was down walking the concourse at Harbor Park the other day to relax following about 32 hours spanning two nights at the hospital. I like going to the ballpark even when it is the off season because it is one of the few places where I can be fully relaxed and at peace. Tuesday was beautiful, the temperature was in the mid 50s with sunshine and a light breeze, the field was a brilliant great and the ever present grounds crew was at work. In the front office I talked with a number of the office staff about players who would and would not be coming back for the 2010 season as well as highlights of the past season. The Tides have a wonderful front office staff. To walk the concourse from behind home plate, out to the right field corner and then back across to the left field picnic area and then to go down to my seat in Section 102, Row B seats 1 and 2 at the Church of Baseball, Harbor Park Parish is a highlight of the week when I have the chance to do it. I feel closeness to God at the ballpark that after Iraq is hard for me to find in many other places. For me there is a mystery and magic about a ballpark that just isn’t there for the other sports, not that there’s anything wrong with that.
For me the other sports can grab my momentary attention but because of their nature cause them to be merely ordinary and occasionally interesting. Baseball is another matter, it is more than a game, it is a metaphor for life, a spiritual experience and a game that mirrors life and faith in many ways. For me this goes back to childhood.
As a kid my dad made me learn the fundamentals of the game and whether we were attending a game in person, watching one on television or playing catch, pepper or practicing infield or pitching in the back yard or in a park, dad was all about the game. Of course he was the same way with football, hockey and basketball, but the sport that he seemed most passionate about was baseball. As a kid he was a Cincinnati Reds fan. His mother, my grandmother who hailed from the hollers of West Virginia was a die hard Dodgers fan. That I still wonder about to this day, but she was the same woman who as a widow in the late 1930s went to work, raised her two boys and bought her own house. Unlike most of the state she was also a Republican, long before West Virginia ever voted for a Republican either President or statewide office. True to form Granny was a Dodgers fan in a land of Reds, Indians and Pirates fans, fierce and independent. However, as a Giants fan I mourn how she had been taken in by the power of the dark side. Despite having fallen under the spell of the Dark Lords Granny was a real baseball fan. Any time you went to Granny’s house and there was a game on, the television was tuned in to it. We were immersed in baseball thanks to my dad and his mother.
Dad always made sure that we got to see baseball wherever we lived. In 1967 he took us to see the Seattle Pilots during their first and only season in that fair city before they went to Milwaukee and became the Brewers. In the elementary schools of those days many our teachers would put the playoff and World’s Series games on the TV as many of those games were played during daylight hours. I remember watching Bob Gibson pitch when the Cardinals played against the Red Sox in the 1967 series. It was awesome to see that man pitch. I remember the Amazing Mets upsetting the Orioles in 1969 and the Orioles take down the Reds in 1970. I will never forget the 1970 All Star Game where Pete Rose ran over Ray Fosse at home plate for the winning run and the great dynasty teams of the 1970s, especially the Reds and the Athletics who dominated much of that decade and the resurgence of the Yankees in the summer that the Bronx burned.
When we were stationed in Long Beach California dad had us at Anaheim stadium all the time. I imagine that we attended at least 20 games there in 1970 and another 25-30 in 1971 as well as a couple at Dodger stadium that year. We met a lot of the Angel players at community events and before the games. I entered the “My Favorite Angel” contest and my entry was picked as a runner up. This netted me two seats behind the plate and having Dick Enberg announced my name on the radio. I wrote about Jim Spencer a Gold Glove First Baseball who later played for the Yankees. I still have a hat from that team with numerous autographs on the inside of the bill including Sandy Alomar, Jim Spencer, Jim Fregosi, Chico Ruiz, and Billy Cowan. It was a magical time for a 10 year old boy.
When we moved to Stockton California dad took us to see the A’s dynasty teams including a number of playoff games. But he also took us across San Francisco Bay to watch the Giants. I got to see Ed Halicki of the Giants no-hit the Mets a Candlestick on August 24th 1975. I got to see some of the greats of the era play in those stadiums, Catfish, Reggie, McCovey, Garvey, Vida Blue, Harmon Killebrew and so many others. I also became acquainted with Minor League Baseball at this time through the Stockton Ports. At the time the Ports were the Class A California League farm team for the Orioles. I remember a few years back talking to Paul Blair the Orioles great Paul Blair who played for the Ports in the early 1960s about Billy Hebert Field and how the sun would go down in the outfield blinding hitters and spectators in its glare. Today I have a renewed interest in the Orioles because of their affiliation with the Norfolk Tides.
As I have grown older my appreciation for the game only deepens despite strikes and steroids and other problems that plague the game at the major league level. I am in awe of the game and the diamond on which it is played. I have played catch on the field of dreams, seen a game in the Yankee Stadium Right Field bleachers, seen a no-hitter, playoff games and met players. I’ve watched the game in Japan, seen historic moments when deployed to combat zones in and have thrown out the first pitch in a couple of minor league games. I am enchanted with the game. The foul lines theoretical go on to infinity, only broken by the placement of the outfield wall. Likewise unlike all other sports there is no time limit, meaning that baseball can be an eschatological game going on into eternity. The Hall of Fame is like the Calendar of Saints in the Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican Churches. There are rituals, the exchange of batting orders and explanation of the ground rules, the ceremonial first pitch, players not stepping on the foul line when entering and leaving the field of play, no talking about it when a pitcher is throwing a no-hitter and the home run trot. The care of a field by an expert ground crew is a thing to behold, especially when they still use the wooden box frames to lay down the chalk on the baselines and the batters box.
My kitchen and much of my dining room are as close to a baseball shrine as Judy will let me make them.
Since I returned from Iraq the baseball diamond is one of my few places of solace. For the first time last year I bought season tickets to my local minor league team the Norfolk Tides. Section 102, row B seats 1 and 2 from which I will, the Deity Herself willing take in the 2010 season at the Church of Baseball, Harbor Park Parish. The home opener is April the 8th against the Durham Bulls, barely 4 months away. From there I will sit back and imagine the words of James Earl Jones in Field of Dreams:
“The one constant through all the years has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past. It reminds us of all that once was good, and what could be again.”
In a sense this says it all to me in an age of war, economic crisis and division. In a sense it is a prayer. Peace and blessings, Steve+