by Tom DeMichael
For me, there is no grand secret to “why baseball?” It’s called: Passion.
Why do we listen to a certain piece of music? Why do we watch certain films? Why do we read a certain author? Why do we appreciate a certain painter or sculptor? Why do we indulge in certain interests and activities?
Obviously, it’s how they stimulate our emotions. We respond by liking those stimuli. When the “like” becomes consuming, engulfing, and/or obsessive – that’s passion (remembering to keep everything healthy, legal, and taking time to eat lunch.)
I have the fortune of holding many passions, but we’ll confine this rambling missive to the game of baseball. When I was a child, my Dad encouraged me to embrace my passions – perhaps because he didn’t (he wasn’t a cold person by any means, but I don’t recall that he ever really spoke passionately about anything – except Mom.)
Still, I remember his musings of seeing ball players who thrilled him at Wrigley Field – mostly before he left for the war in Europe in 1942. He was particularly impressed with Stan Hack – an All-Star third baseman with the Cubs during the Thirties and Forties. He also would elaborate on Jimmie Foxx, a bull-necked slugging superstar in the AL. Known as “The Beast” and “Double X,” the three-time MVP was one of the top players in the game in the 1930s.
Yet, in that period of my childhood (let’s say…1961 to 1966,) I wasn’t moved by his tales to become active in baseball (Two seasons of what we then called “Peanut League” resulted in watching balls roll past me in left field, turning singles into triples – and, a personal two-year batting average of .077. Wow.)
What did I miss in those days? First hand, I knew nothing of Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle’s pursuit of fellow Yankee Babe Ruth’s historic single-season record of 60 home runs in 1961 (and Ruth-loving baseball commissioner Ford Frick’s insistence of attaching an undeserved asterisk to Maris’ record-breaking achievement.)
I knew nothing of Chicago Cubs’ owner Philip K. Wrigley who, tired of losing, created the revolutionary “Cubs Program” in 1961. His idea was known as “The College of Coaches.” Unfortunately, the college didn’t even make it out of kindergarten – it was a complete bust. Eight coaches rotated, from the lowest class of the minors, up to the major league club. The result was anarchy, as not one of the head coaches had a winning record, and the players – and fans – suffered for it. It’s no surprise the idea died a certain death, never to be seen or heard again.
I knew nothing of the amazing lefty hurler named Sandy Koufax. Pitching just twelve years for the LA Dodgers, he was perhaps the most feared pitcher in the early to mid-1960s. Pirate Willie Stargell once compared trying to hit Koufax with trying to “drink coffee with a fork.” Much like the black players that came before him, the Jewish Koufax endured mean-spirited and threatening comments in his career. But, also like his predecessors, he silenced many with his skill and determination to succeed. I knew nothing of his three Cy Young Awards and his four no-hitters, Between 1963 and 1966, his record was a combined 97 wins and 27 losses, for a .782 winning percentage. He had a four-year strikeout total of 1,228, with only a total of 259 walks in that same period. His ERAs during those four years were 1.88, 1.74, 2.04, and 1.73 (was there even a reason for opponents to show up at the park on the days that Sandy was pitching?)
I missed all of that, plus much more.
But, in the summer of 1968, I found that – suddenly – I couldn’t get enough of the game called “baseball.” And, while I claim to be no expert in the skill of perfect timing, my epiphany placed me at the doorstep of the Chicago Cubs season of 1969.
Everyone picked the Chicago Cubs to go all the way in ’69. On August 16, they were in first place, up by nine games and a healthy thirty-one games over .500. The rest of the season is pointed to as a complete collapse, with the team playing all home games during the day as the suggested main reason for their fall from grace On August 13, the Mets were ten games behind the Cubs. But, the truth be told, the Mets’ success was no miracle – they played great baseball down the stretch and finished from that date with a crushing record of 38 wins and only 11 losses. They deserved to win.
And I, like many baseball fans, would have to wait another forty-seven years for the whole enchilada.
From that point in 1969 forward, I seldom if ever missed the chance to indulge my passion for the game. I consumed dozens and dozens of books (pre-Internet) about baseball – histories, biographies, reference books crammed with stats and figures back to 1871, instructional tomes on hitting (no less by gurus like Ted Williams and Charlie Lau,) pitching, and strategy, even books on the physics of baseball.
I played hundreds of games of softball – Chicago-style 16″ and the faster-paced 12″ – enjoying the occasional thrill of victory (and the much more-prevalent agony of defeat.) I also paid a ridiculous amount of money in 1992 to play three days of baseball with guys named Randy Hundley, Joe Pepitone, Larry Biittner, Rich Nye, and others – in a place called Wrigley Field (They talk to this day of my legging a triple into a double – and, it’s on tape.)
I coached Little League and Pony League; I coached co-ed church teams; I coached two years of ladies’ 14″ “mushball” (featuring some of the finest fielders – male OR female – I’ve ever seen.) I umpired intramural games at my college in a certain farm town west of Chicago. And that was BEFORE I had two sons. Between those two lads, I managed and/or coached nearly fifteen seasons’ worth of suburban baseball.
So, with all that said, here’s my final pitch (heh…heh,) about the game:
Consider these other games – football, basketball, soccer, hockey, and lacrosse (one could also include foosball, but that’s really just a combination of soccer and shish kebab.) As immensely popular as they are, their structure is essentially the same. Two teams gather on a rectangular area, with a scoring opportunity on either end, be it net, hoop, or end zone. Against the defending team, the offensive team is challenged to take a ball or puck down the field in an effort to score a point or points. Despite the existence of defined segments – be they quarters, halves, or periods – the final closure of the contest is based on a clock – a finite amount of time.
Baseball is nothing like any of those games. The field (while standardized by certain requisites, like distance to the bases and a minimum distance to the outfield wall) is unique in almost every park and stadium. Yes, there is a field of play (called “fair territory,”) but even the “out-of-bounds” area – known as “foul territory” – allows the ball to be played upon.
There are defined segments called innings, but there is no clock. As long as the offensive team safely puts the ball in play and scores, the game goes on. Instead of “sudden death” in the other sports, where the first team to break a tie in overtime wins, the home baseball team will always have the chance to settle up if their opponent goes ahead in extra innings.
As is often noted, no other game begins play with the defensive team controlling the ball. No other game has its manager or coach dressed in the team’s uniform, except for the very rare situation of a player-coach (I’m sure Phil Jackson cut a dashing figure in his day, but would you really want to see him coaching an NBA team in a satiny tank top and shorts? I think not.)
Some believe the leisurely pace of baseball is a negative thing, but I have to disagree. The down time between pitching and putting the ball in play allows players, coaches, and managers to consider the options and their possible reactions, and prepare accordingly. Yet, I do support today’s efforts to quicken the game’s overall pace.
Obviously, keen physical reflexes are required in all sports, but – as I see it – the mental portion of baseball challenges other team sports to provide similar and equal opportunities (That’s about as fair, unbiased, and honest as I can be – If you’re offended, you can always switch to another section of CST at any time.)
At the end of the day, it’s those passionate moments that let us be more than just bipedal consumers of a nitrogen/oxygen mixture. For me, many of them are baseball-related. And, I enjoy the chance to share some of those passions with the readers of CST.
Because, we should always do what our Dad says.