The swift crack of bat against ball electrifies thousands of people in the stands, millions watching worldwide. A buzz is created in milliseconds over the potential landing spot of those tightly wrapped, stitched-together pieces of hide. The hitter could be a goat, or go down as a pure legend of the game, and the thrower, generally forgotten about in this scenario, a mere launching platform for some of the game’s greatest moments. This game will drive you mad and have you giggling like a child in the span of sixty seconds. To some it is loathsome and boring. To those of us who love the game, its brilliance is that of a chess match between masters, move after move calculated, then a flash of the unexpected. Baseball can be so many things to so many people: inspiration for those suffering; warm nostalgia for those remembering times gone by; pure adrenaline rush for those who play it or have played it and felt the purity of a perfect swing or clean leather on ball to save a run; peaceful perfection for someone like myself who finds solace in just watching the game being played at any level.
Mine is a love for the game that withstands logos and locales. I have my favorite team, our hometown Twins, but will watch any team play just for the pleasure of watching the game. I no longer play baseball, but watch the game for the sheer enjoyment of what might happen. What happens if he hits a home run here? How does a strike affect his next pitch or the batter’s approach at that plate? There are so many questions that can be asked, and all those questions get answered as soon as a pitch is thrown. Rarely the result leaves you awestruck, cheering wildly over what you just witnessed; most often you just regurgitate those same questions with minimal new information and wait for what happens next. As a player you ponder those questions slowly in repetition during practice, and rapidly before the ball is in play so you know exactly what to do next.
The Sandlot’s Benny Rodriguez said it best about this magnificent game (and it is a game) that appears so complex yet is so simple in its participants’ seemingly instinctive practices. “Man, this is baseball, you gotta stop thinking! Just have fun. If you were having fun, you would have caught that ball!” To think in a game that requires split-second reactions is to be the buffoon, the leper, the goat. You think, you die. Practice is where you really think, practice is where you rehearse what might happen. When the game begins and that first pitch is thrown, you react with what you have already thought about. Paradoxically, when watching or coaching a game, all you do is think of the many different outcomes that are possible without ever having to quickly react to one of those scenarios.
Coaching, or watching the game being played is a brilliant dance of speed, strength, agility, and the terrifying possibility that someone will get hit with a thrown or batted ball. Little leaguers to senior leaguers, there is always something to be mystified by during a baseball game. The distance covered by a second basemen to reach a ground ball that was definitely making it into the outfield for a hit or watching an outfielder run full speed and literally leap into the air to cleanly catch a falling fly ball or when Steve Lyons, then of the Chicago White Sox, slid into first base on a close play, jumped to his feet, and dropped his pants to shake out the dirt.
I always preferred wearing the knickers-style pants whose length went just below the knee, ala Jackie Robinson. When playing, it made me feel fast and provided extra padding when sliding. Of course, I wasn’t made any quicker by wearing my pants that way, but it sure helped to feel like it. I always find myself rooting for players who wear their pants this way. Surely it’s not fact, but guys who wear the knickers seem to have that extra bit of hustle and almost a little recklessness in their playing style that can equate to a train wreck, but when that recklessness works out it is breathtaking. One of the popular ways to wear pants in the profession of baseball nowadays is to have them extra long and baggy; extra long, so much so that some players will pull the backs of their pant legs down and over the back set of cleats on their shoes ripping holes through the pants but keeping them in place throughout the game. In colder climates players will have earflaps sewn into their hats and might be seen wearing facemasks and turtlenecks to stay warm.
I remember one cold, windy Sunday afternoon in March a few hundred feet north of westbound Interstate 90 in unincorporated Ridgeway, Minnesota. We ran, we slid, we dove, we threw, we swung for the love of the game. Our fingers numbed fifteen minutes into this wondrous mess, our faces dirty and chins and lips covered in free-flowing snot. We couldn’t think of a better time or place. Being so wise and mature at age fourteen, not sure if the other guys were behaving in this childish manner or not and not willing to risk my coolness by asking, I played the defensive positions imagining myself as the Ironman from Baltimore’s Camden Yards or the stout centerfielder from our baseball oasis in the North Woods. Sure, it was too early to be fielding balls in slush and through unavoidable teary eyes because the bite of the wind was still so cold on our faces, but a winter spent doting over pieces of cardboard printed with pictures of our heros, some action shots and some seemingly planned by Glamour Shots, and dreaming of that sharp, bright sunlight and the greenest grass you can imagine was all getting to be too much. We just had to get outside and play ball.
During summers growing up I spent most daylight hours outside, unless there was a Cubs game on. I wouldn’t miss those for anything! Ryno aka Ryne Sandberg, Andre “The Hawk” Dawson, Shaun Dunston. Watching them perform on a stage of dirt and grass and ivy-covered outfield walls was a euphoric experience. Pure joy. I finally got to bear witness to a game at Chicago’s famed Wrigley Field in the summer of 1999 when my best friend Scott and I were waiting to pick up my then-girlfriend from the airport. The game was sold out but a ticket taker let us both in at $10 each for “standing room only”, then hinted that we should pay attention to any open seats and if no butts were in them for a few innings we should take them. I was enthralled. We ended up standing the whole game because we found a spot with a great view of the field. The game wasn’t anything out of the ordinary until into the 9th inning the Cubs rallied and Glenallen Hill was at the plate with one out. With lip-biting, fist-clenching madness I waited for the first pitch of his at-bat. Home run! He tied the game with one swing and a few batters later Mark Grace won it on a run-scoring double. This was my only experience at Wrigley Field and I will never forget it.
The tension and lip-biting and fist-clenching that happens when you realize the team you’re cheering for may lose, or win; it’s so intense, you’re drawn into this live-action chess match that can swing wildly in each team’s favor from pitch to pitch. It is borderline addictive. Nah. It’s addictive.
Another moment of amazement happened this last season in the American League Championship Series. The Detroit Tigers pitching was peaking and dominated the Boston Red Sox in game one by only allowing one hit. Game two was starting, and appeared to be ending, the same way. Detroit walked the bases loaded and David Ortiz was put in a position with the bases loaded in the eighth inning to tie the game. He is getting older and is not the reliably powerful hitter he once was. With the way Detroit was playing this at-bat would end with a strikeout and Detroit would take control of the series and be headed to the World Series. Then the improbable happened. He hit a grand slam to tie the game and effectively create momentum that carried the Red Sox past the Tigers to the World Series where they beat the St. Louis Cardinals to win the title. Something happened with that grand slam. There are times when you can physically feel the entire aura of the game shift into another team’s favor. That happened with one swing of a bat. It changed everything and you could literally feel it.
The game and its many facets have been plotted perfectly in book and on the big screen. The Sandlot, The Natural, Field of Dreams (I have watched this movie more than 200 times and have as an adult giddily played baseball on the field where the movie was filmed), Bull Durham, A League of Their Own. Moments etched in literary and film lore are planned and executed to perfection to match the climactic nature of the story. Real life games can be so much more because there is no script, and when the magical happens, it is profound. Near unbelievable.
Baseball defies logic. Statistically players are doomed to fail in most situations. It takes only that one outrageously small amount of time to make a decision which results in defying any statistical or logical explanation. Watching those moments makes me feel like a kid again. Truly alive.