by Tom Tolnay
These are dark, disheartening times in the history of our nation, with acts of terrorism being committed against our citizens here and abroad, persistent economic instability causing thousands to lose their homes, corruption in business and government overwhelming the law of the land, and an increasing number of Americans insisting, treacherously, that “baseball is dead,” much too slow to keep pace with the supercharged, digital-driven world of the 21st century. From sea to shining sea U.S.-born sports fans are trying to validate this pernicious falsehood by comparing outfielders “settling under lazy fly balls” to point guards hustling down shellacked floorboards to slam-dunk a globe through a hula hoop. Or to bounty-hunters strapped in padded armor rushing into an opponent’s frontline, helmets lowered in the earnest hope of inflicting concussions. One time I even heard the pizza delivery guy in our neighborhood declare, unequivocally: “Pitchers and catchers do nothing but play catch all day,” alleging fans’ll get “much more action” watching grown-ups or youngsters in short pants kicking–or bouncing off their heads!–a volley ball. Can you believe it? Soccer! What’s this republic coming to?
Though baseball’s been around longer than the other major American-invented team games—except lacrosse, which we owe to Native Americans, it remains the most misunderstood of all. To the dilettante baseball may seem quite slow, downright sedate at times, but just beneath its neatly raked base paths lies a hot stove of fierce competitiveness that remains capable of bringing thousands to their feet as the red-stitched white ball is muscled over the fence or a centerfielder dives head-long to trap a “gapper.” What I’m saying is this: Baseball’s a thinking fan’s game, and understanding its subtleties requires an upper-deck level of intelligence as opposed to, say, eyeballing a horde of foul-ball twits (or should I say “twitters”) in leggings kicking an air-pumped ball hither and thither. I don’t mean fans need an Ivy League degree to get the most out of each game, but baseball’s curriculum does require the study of a couple of arcane languages.
Dugout-Linguistics is fundamental to the translation of chatter from bench-jockeys who are spitting sunflower seeds and tobacco juice on the floor. Though many of the epithets shouted out of opposing dugouts may not be fit for children’s ears, others are unquestionably literary, incorporating double-entendres, bombastic banter, and witty puns. When a manager shouts at the home-plate umpire, “You’re blind as a – – – – – – – bat,” he isn’t merely questioning the ump’s 20/20; he’s also composing a serviceable pun: The word bat refers not only to squinty eyed, fanged creatures darting about at twilight, but to the bats swung at spheroids flying toward the batter’s head at 90-plus mph. Wasn’t it James Joyce who relied on puns to help readers decode whatever the hell he was trying to tell us in Ulysses? But don’t get me wrong–baseball’s not merely for eggheads; it’s a game for everyone, and for all time. Nor it is just for old farts like me, as the game’s detractors like to imply.
Another diamond-lingo is embodied in the hand-and-body gestures a manager flashes from the dugout to reposition infielders, outfielders, or to instruct the pitcher to walk the opposing team’s clean-up hitter; along with those signals aimed by first and third base coaches at base runners looking to take an extra base or steal a bag; and last but decidedly of equal importance are the game-long conversations between catchers and pitchers who wiggle their fingers, shake their heads, pinch their earlobes, tug the bills of their caps. Each team develops its own dialect within this language, vigilantly shielding their top-secret alphabets from their rivals. While baseball’s semaphore systems have been formalized by individual teams over the past century, basically their sign-languages have remained as straightforward as the gesticulations developed by our earliest, cave-dwelling ancestors–rubbing the tummy, thumping the chest with both fists, or simply scratching the ass.
In the course of every contest adjustments are continually being made by pitchers, catchers, fielders, runners, and of course by the players whose hands are clutching the wooden handles of Louisville Sluggers–how many inches they stand off the plate, the length of their stride, distribution of weight when cutting at the horsehide. Speaking of batting, this might be a good time to mention that connecting a tiny spot on the bat with a tiny spot on the ball is the most challenging undertaking in any athletic undertaking. Yogi Berra, the eminently quotable catcher of yore for the New York Yankees, encapsulated this improbable task insightfully: the hitter grips a round bat, a round ball is thrown at him, and he is expected to hit it “squarely.” The good news is that even if a batter fails to slap a clean base hit seven out of ten times, he’s still a three-hundred hitter, which makes him among the most successful players in the game.
On Opening Day a baseball-basher at Shelley’s Tavern, down the street from my house, asserted that baseball lacks athleticism. If I’d had my druthers with me at the time I would’ve dumped my mug of beer over his head while pointing out that seasons of 16 and 82 games played in professional football and basketball add up, combined, to not much more than half a season of major league baseball. Half a season! Like the Earl Weaver, the deceased, tough-hided manager of the Baltimore Orioles, used to say: “Hey, we do this every day.” His point being that to field your position, take your cuts, and run the bases six or seven days a week on hot clay and dusty grass or, these days, on stiff, lifeless artificial turf (who really knows what that stuff’s made of?) represents an extraordinary, ongoing demonstration of resilience and determination, and these qualities are infinitely more athletic than sweaty jocks heaving a ball through a hoop a couple of times a week for a few months.
Those who claim there’s too little action in our sport obviously have never sat in front of a TV long enough to observe the bases loaded with runners when a power-hitter whacks a fastball off the leftfield wall: Instantaneously runners are scampering around first, second, and third bases, outfielders are chasing down the ball, infielders are setting up to retrieve a throw from the outfield to relay it to the catcher, while the pitcher scoots off the mound to back up the play. Moments later those runners are sliding into home plate, one after another, and the guy in the iron mask is throwing his body in the way of sharp metal spikes to prevent the opposing team from scoring. While it’s true an uncertain number of minutes or innings can pass before that carousel of runners will be replicated, especially in a pitchers’ duel, what’s important to remember is that during this respite in action fans are granted a precious gift–the time to ruminate over what has happened on the field, and how it will affect the outcome of the game.
In football, minutes can pass before the troops sort themselves out to crouch down on opposite sides of the scrimmage line, and before the quarterback hands a pointy-ended ball (balls, by definition, are round) off to a running back, or launches a pass that’s either hauled in by a receiver or knocked away by a defender. Minutes later they’re lining up to do this all over again. Where’s the beauty in observing twenty-two bulked-up henchmen in leotards pile on top of each other over and over again? To witness poetry in motion one must take in a game of baseball. Instead of actually going to or following a game on TV, all these anti-baseball hooligans do is hang around bars or call up radio sports shows, trying to stuff our game into a corner of the past. In effect they aren’t merely desecrating the grand traditions of our American pastime–they’re attacking Beauty itself, and as a wise poet, who was also a utility infielder in the minors, once wrote: Baseball is Truth and Truth is Baseball.
Mindful of the importance of passing the well-worn mitt of history on to the next generation, the day my son Stevie turned ten, while the candles on his cake were still flickering, I began explaining why most professional basketball and football players–including the greatest, like Michael Jordan, couldn’t get it done on a field of dreams. I especially enjoyed pointing out that a baseball player didn’t need to be seven feet tall, or weigh three hundred pounds, to be successful. (Stevie was short and skinny for his age, kind of like I am now.) “Back in ‘52, Bobby Shantz, who was five feet short, struck out Whitey Lockman, Jackie Robinson, and Stan Musial in a row–all of them a foot taller than Bobby–on the National League’s all-star team.”
My son stopped me dead in my cleats: “Dad, it’s a whole new ballgame out there.”
“What new game you talking about?–baseball’s America’s national pastime.”
“Kids today would rather play soccer, or go to a football game, or chuck a basketball into a hoop–even check out hockey on TV.”
“Hockey? That’s Canada’s national pastime! You’re a citizen of the United States!”
When my son shrank away from this loud rejoinder, my wife Adeline stepped in to pinch hit for him. “Ernie, you might as well face it–baseball’s time has come and gone.” My so-called partner in life had dealt me the most humiliating swing-and-miss of my career. But even though I’d taken strikes from my son and wife, I still had one swing coming to me. (That’s one of the beauties of baseball–you can look bad on a couple of pitches, but still come through to win the game.) After I’d finished drying the birthday dishes, I crept up beside my daughter Emmy, who was taking dance lessons at the time, and whispered: “When a shortstop leaps into the air to complete a double play, it’s like the prima ballerina pirouetting at the New York City ballet.” To my everlasting disappointment I was unable to extract a single word out of her: Her round brown eyes did all the talking, gawking as if I were wearing the uniform of a team from Mars. Mighty Ernie had struck out.
If I’d been as smart back then as I am today, I would’ve started introducing my kids to the intricacies of baseball by taking them out to the stadium and stuffing them with hotdogs and Crackerjacks when they were very young–maybe three or four. (Get them before they’re five and you’ve got them for life.) Regrettably I’d been too locked into ten/twelve-hour days at the printing plant so I could pay off our Pontiac, our bungalow on the outskirts of Queens–including a plot of unmowed grass barely big enough to play “pepper.” (For the edification of tennis elitists, pepper happens to be a little game of tossing a ball again and again at a batter who taps it back so it can be fielded again and again.) Once my whiz kids had been properly indoctrinated, I could have sent them out into the world carrying scorecards like a couple of Bible-toting disciples, spreading the good word. By this time they’re married and have kids of their own–fact is, Stevie’s already divorced, another example of the inability of present-day society to dig in. Anyway, it had become evident that if I was going to have any impact on baseball’s future in America, it would have to be through my grandchildren. The advantage of this strategy was that it would give me four–two boys, two girls–instead of only two–disciples. Shortly after I’d started making inquiries into my grandkids’ after-school activities, however, I learned they’d already been hijacked by the soccer and basketball coaches, and that Carissa was excelling in miniature golf. What an ungrateful nation, after all that baseball has done for us.
Having started studying baseball well before I’d reached ten, and having now slid safely, more or less, into retirement, I had wandered through most of my life with baseball as a kind of second-string wife, and to this day I still find myself attracted to its beauty, its purity, its mathematical certitude: nine innings, three outs per inning, three strikes and yer out! While those years were marching past me, and my kids were marching off to their own marital war games, I was becoming slowly but steadily weaker of constitution; in a word, too cowardly to stand up to the baseball-bashers of America.
Whenever I read in a newspaper or magazine, or heard some sports commentator on the radio serving up those ridiculous platitudes–“baseball is boring,” or “baseball is going, going, gone,” my blood would simmer like a coffeepot left on the burner too long. And when any of those sportscasters on ESPN or the networks went so far as to proclaim, coast to coast, that “Football is America’s national pastime,” I have been known to throw a shoe at the television. The trash talk keeps getting nastier and more copious. Nowadays baseball fans are bombarded daily with attacks from football, basketball, hockey, even bowling aficionados who call up sports-talk radio shows to slam my game, and I sometimes wonder if my angry reactions to these antagonists have caused some of you to question why I become so distraught over their mean-spirited disparagements. After all, there are several unwarranted wars going on around the world, and millions of my fellow Americans are out of work, and many of our elderly neighbors can’t afford to buy the prescriptions they need to stay alive, yet here I am grousing about the decline and fall of baseball’s reputation.
The only way I’ve been able to justify my occasionally intemperate reactions is to remind myself that, when I was falling in love with baseball, America had been a totally different home of the Atlanta Braves: No one ever complained that we listened to and talked and read about baseball morning, noon, night. On Saturdays many of us actually swung a bat and scampered to first base, assuming we could come up with enough empty flour sacks to use for bases. Nor did we have several sporting seasons slopping over into our good old summertime, so we could run the bases without crashing into goal posts or getting tangled in spidery soccer nets. Since players didn’t jump from team to team the way they do now–egged on by agents to sell out for multi-million dollar contracts, we were able to follow the careers of our heroes from the time they broke in till the day play-by-play announcers started calling them “veterans.” Fans honored the players’ loyalty to one team by collecting their pictures and stats on Topp’s baseball cards, which we stashed in shoe boxes and buried in our closets like chests loaded with gold coins on Treasure Island. (Some of them really did turn out to be very valuable, like that batch of cards somebody found not long ago with pictures of Ty Cobb and Cy Young that’s supposedly worth three million bucks.)
Meanwhile, all during this process of loving appreciation, we were picking up the finer points of the game through intensive summer-school sessions advanced by the best professors in the business, such as Mel Allen, Red Barber, Vince Scully. Their resonant tones over the air waves suggested baseball wasn’t merely a game but part-and-parcel of what it meant to be American; they inspired millions of kids, me included, to fantasize that one day we might play a position up-the-middle–backstop, shortstop, or centerfield–for our favorite teams. Speaking of favorite teams, according to a boyhood pal of mine, Jonny Timmons, the reason individual fans followed a particular team was because God assigned a ballclub to each kid at birth. I laughed wildly at his stupid theory, pointing out kids in our neighborhood followed the Dodgers, Giants or Yankees because we lived in the city where they played.
“That’s only because God made it easier for good kids to follow their home team,” Jonny rasped, his face turning red, “but bad kids are punished by being forced to root for a team outside their city.”
“Who in God’s name handed you this crap?”
“Father Mike at St. Anthony’s, and he never told a lie in his life.”
What else was there for me to do but chuck him a Lutheran curve ball? “You’re crazy!”
“Oh yeah?” Jonny shot back, “then how come Pete’s a Pirates fan and Billy’s an Indians fan? They live on the same block as you and me, and both of ’em hate our city teams.”
Forced to admit Pete and Billy really did get into a lot more trouble than the rest of us, all I could think to say was this: “Maybe that’s why the Giants and Dodgers left town–they got more hate than love in New York.”
Though it took years, I finally identified the true reason I couldn’t let go of the hostility I felt toward baseball’s critics: It wasn’t because my collection of baseball cards had been tossed in the garbage when I turned thirteen; no, it was because of the accumulation of birthday cards I’d been gathering over those years. Seventy-four ain’t all that old any more, so they tell me; of course those who make this claim are too young to crawl out of bed every morning with aches in joints you didn’t even know you had. Recently, while assessing these later innings of my life, I came to the conclusion that the pains of aging had been more than compensated for: The fleeting years had made me wise enough to appreciate the splendor of sitting in the bleachers on a sun-burnt summer’s afternoon (while wearing a baseball cap to protect my increasingly hairless scalp), savoring a game of hardball with a cold beer in one hand and a first-baseman’s glove on the other in case a foul ball should come my way.
More hurtful even than the lies those detractors have been spreading about baseball, I must admit, was how the latest crop of major leaguers had betrayed their steadfast fans: A group of ballplayers, nobody knows how many–including some of our biggest stars, started injecting human growth hormones and body-building steroids into their butts for the sole purpose of getting a leg up on the rest of the players. Far as I’m concerned, this made them nothing more than a pack of cheaters. Not only did they mess up their own bodies and minds, but they poisoned the game for thousands of trusting fans, making a mockery of the Hall of Fame–of the revered history of baseball, which is intimately tied to the history of America. Who knows? Maybe that’s why there’re so many baseball-bashers out there these days. But hey, time swallows everything, as no one knows better than I, and that revolting phase of baseball’s history seems to be breaking down, slowly but surely–like an aging pitcher who’s losing his fastball. Wouldn’t you say the time has come to look beyond those misplays they committed against their loyal followers? Time to peer not into the withered souls of that group of juiced-up, greedy players but into the heart of the game itself, where I have no doubt we’ll always be able to find mounds of innocent love waiting for us to take pleasure in.
Sharing a still unpaid-off house (I kept refinancing to keep pace with our cellar-dwelling economy), with a spouse who barely looks up from her knitting to glance my way–why a sixty-nine-year old woman keeps knitting baby sweaters I’ll never figure out; and with my being retired from the printing game–another noble enterprise that’s gone to pot; and being too cranky to get along with computers, Kindles, I-pads; and with my kids residing closer to ballparks of other major league teams; and with my being too far gone to give a damn about sex, what else is left on earth which can provide as much stimulation to a guy with my vintage stats as an extra innings’ game? Including the back-up bliss of checking out batting averages, box scores, division standings in the next morning’s paper–assuming they keep printing newspapers. (Hell, they don’t even make Pontiacs any more!) They tell me these same statistics can be found floating around in cyberspace, but I’ve never had enough patience to look up how many games my team is out of first place on a 9×12-inch glass screen. On the 11×16-inch pages of my newspaper (which make a very pleasant crinkly sound), I know exactly where to find the information I need in a second or two, and it’s already been printed out so I can refer to it later in the week.
Midway through life, after picking up my personal copy of theDaily News, on the way home from buying a six-pack at the grocery, I would stop and gaze contentedly through a chain-link fence at a bunch of kids, without uniforms or apparent cares, throwing wild to first base or sliding into second. These days, when I walk past that same fence to pick up our prescriptions from the chain drug store, all I see is a swarm of squealing squirts, knees poking out between knickers and leggings, kicking a volley ball across the stomped-dead grass. Without bats and bases out there, I no longer stop to take a whiff of diamond dust, to listen for the crack of a baseball bat. (The bats swung by the youngest players today don’t crack so much as ping!) I just walk on by, praying earnestly to whatever God may be listening that a ballgame will be broadcast that afternoon or evening. Any game at all–American or National leagues, minor leagues, college playoffs in Omaha, Little League World Series at Williamsport.
Occasionally, if it’s too early to locate a game on the tube, I amuse myself by turning on one of those call-in sports radio shows, ruled like tiny kingdoms by all-powerful, omniscient dictators who issue proclamations on why this player is in a slump, why that team is on a winning streak. Or where I can find out on Sports Center who was the latest pitcher to go on the DL (Disabled List, if you merely putter around the links). But I must confess the last time I tuned in to one of these shows actually led to my first serious attempt to defend baseball beyond the walls of my permanently mortgaged abode. What launched me into a defensive mode on behalf of baseball was this New York Jets (fact is, they play in New Jersey!) fan, Jack from Paramus, who called in to chastise the show’s host for spending “way too much time talking baseball.”
What’s this nut talking about? I thought. With summer only half over, it’s already hard to locate anyone talking bats and balls on the radio.
“It happens to be baseball season, Jack,” the host said with a slight edge.
“Face it, Tony. Nobody cares about baseball anymore–it’s dead, so it needs to be buried. Whatta you say we get up to speed on pre-season NFL football.”
“Sure, we’ll get to that, but why do you say baseball’s dead?”
“If something keeps getting slower,” Jack of Paramus opined, “eventually it stops moving altogether, and that’s how you know it’s dead.”
The radio host chuckled and, for a change, didn’t have an immediate response, so the caller continued haranguing. “My son used to play Little League ball, but when they stuck him out in rightfield, all he did was stand around picking dandelions. Let’s be honest, Tony, baseball’s boring people to death.”
Tony cleared his throat. “Maybe you’re right, Jack, baseball can be dull at times.”
“At times?” yelped the caller. “If there’s nothing to watch on the tube, and I click on a baseball game in desperation, I always end up falling asleep on my La-Z-Boy.” To highlight his testimony, Jack from Paramus started snoring loudly.
I was furious! Not only because of that jackass’s remarks, but because Tony, the host, during previous shows, had often ridiculed the New York Yankees, claiming “the Bronx Bombers bought all their world championships.” You know as well as I do it’s impossible to vilify any club without being a fan of the sport. Before I knew what I was doing I had dialed the station, whose number was repeated regularly over the air. Since I’d never called in before, I had no idea how long one has to hold on with any hope of getting through. I waited, and waited, and waited, and waited, and finally hung up, swallowing my frustration like a can of warm, stale beer.
Later that week, when I couldn’t find any baseball on the air, and still annoyed at Jack and Tony, I tuned in a sports show on a different radio station, and in fifteen minutes I heard the same rubbish about my game being dumped into my living room: “Baseball’s going, going, gone to hell!” Reacting without thinking I dialed in. This time I was determined to hang on until the World Series started, not wanting to miss a single pitch of the Fall Classic. Eight minutes and twenty-three seconds into my waiting game someone at the station plugged in and asked me what I wanted to talk about. I was shocked my call had actually been answered–as if a line drive had been smacked straight at me on the hot corner, but I fielded it cleanly and said defiantly: “Baseball is the greatest game ever invented!”
“Whatever you say, Brett, just hang in there and we’ll get you on with Al in a few.”
My name is Ernest Rosnick, a name that was handed to me as a babe-in-arms by my family just like my team the Yankees was handed to me by my father and the Lutheran church was handed to me by my mother, though I can’t say who gave me the knack for figuring batting averages without a calculator. But since I was shy about exposing the depths of my soul to thousands of strangers in radio-realm, I’d made up a name for myself: Brett Ballinger. Has a nice crack-of-the-bat sound to it, don’t you think? Not that I was ashamed of what I believed in. Nor was I hiding from the law. Painfully aware someone had to stand up and speak out for my beloved game, I just felt using an alias would give me the courage I’d need to knock down a couple of bashers at the plate without getting tossed from the game.
When the station finally hooked me up with the host, I said, stumblingly, “Al,
is that . . . you?”
“Who the hell did you think it would be?–what’s on your mind, Brett?”
As a thinking man, something was always on my mind, and yet, at that particular moment, I was unable to scoop any thoughts out of the dugout of my brain that would satisfy his quick-pitch question.
“Brett, you still on the line–what’ve you got for me?”
The host spat these words rapid-fire, anxious to keep his show moving, but still I was unable to cough up a single syllable.
“Looks like we lost Brett–who’s next on the line?” I heard Al say over my radio, which I’d turned up fairly loud, though I knew hosts wouldn’t stay on with callers who wanted to hear their own voices on the air. Stunned at being disconnected, and ticked off for having failed not only myself but all honest-to-goodness baseball fans, I shut off the radio with a bellow, causing my wife to peer toward me with alarm in her eyes, though only momentarily, having gotten used to my outbursts.
Suddenly the words I’d planned to say surfaced in my head: The laid-back pacing of baseball is one of the most attractive features of this game.
That doesn’t make a helluva lot of sense, Brett, I could hear Al, the host, say in my inner ear.
When fans are witnessing the unfolding of each inning, they’re also being granted time to think through each swing of the bat, each put-out, each base-hit, each run scored, and this makes it possible to experience every play twice–on the field, and in their minds.
Isn’t that true of every sport? the host barked.
No way! All those other sports care about is speed, so their fans never get enough time to enjoy each play more than once, not without having to wait for glimpses of replays on TV that never show all the action.
I’d had a lot more to say, like the fact that baseball is passed from one generation to the next, which makes history much more important than in any other sport. But the most significant thought that needed to be aired publicly was that a fan never wastes a minute of his or her life following baseball. Seems my boyhood pal, Jonny Timmons, was right after all–God really is a big baseball fan, and He simply adds the time spent with baseball on to one’s lifetime allotment of hours. Tragically, I hadn’t come through in the clutch to pass this vital knowledge on to the masses, and I knew, the way a player who knows he’s getting soft, that I’d never again come to bat with the bases loaded.
Reemerging from the cushions I’d sunken into on the couch, I glanced toward the white-haired woman who was planted in an armchair on the opposite side of my living room. Instead of counting how many pitches had been thrown by the starter, she was counting stitches in a tiny pink garment that was beginning to look like a uniform for a very little ballplayer, and I experienced a sharp stab of regret that girls, when we were growing up, hadn’t been encouraged to punch a fist into a baseball mitt, or to tune in ballgames on the radio. If that had been the situation back then, Addy and I might’ve had a lot more to talk about in the late innings of our life together.
Tom Tolnay is a printer of letterpress editions of poetry and fiction at Birch Brook Press in upstate New York. His stories have appeared in more than two dozen literary and consumer magazines.
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