“Play ball!” I love hearing that refrain. It comes from the depths of the thoracic cavity of baseball’s men in blue. It is a rite of spring just as surly as the sight of a robin in the Midwest and a cactus bloom in the desert. Spring: the metaphor for rebirth and hope eternal.
The problem is that baseball isn’t primarily a game of hope. True, every pitcher starts every game with the opportunity for perfection. It doesn’t happen often–only 23 times in history. And, opening day means every team has a chance at the brass ring dangling at the end of the long summer. Alas, only one will prevail.
Baseball is mostly a game of suffering, heartbreak, and a call for the patience of Job. It is rife with material for a Shakespearian tragedy. Even the above-mentioned perfect game can cause distress. Jim Bunning, the major-league pitcher turned nut-job Senator from Kentucky, had his perfect game the season AFTER my team, the Detroit Tigers, traded him to the Phillies. The heart breaking that day was mine.
Even the greatest players experience catastrophe. Joe Torre the All-Star player, 2,000 game winning manager, and 2014 Hall of Fame inductee once hit into five double plays in one game. He accounted for over one-third of the outs against his team that day. You gotta love a game that keeps those statistics on the books. Reggie Jackson amassed 2,548 hits in his career, but struck out 50 more times than he got hits. The most famous name in baseball, Babe Ruth, was also as well known for his K’s as his homers.
Baseball takes patience. Just ask my brother-in-law–he’s a Cubs fan!
Merely getting one hit per game carves out Hall of Fame careers. Even the team that wins it all in October has lost a month and a half worth of games along the way. There is no statistic for a perfect season.
Even though there are as many frowns as smiles during a season, the game is infectious. My mother was a rabid fan. She started early by going on a date with future hall of fame pitcher, Hal Newhouser, on the night of his first major league start. She continued being a fan to her last day. She always had her favorite Tiger: Charlie Maxwell, Bill Freehan (who also dated my cousin, must be something in the family genes), and Alan Trammell to name only a few.
Off the field stories about the boys of summer are endearing as the players themselves. Jim Bouton, a journeyman pitcher who made his fame by writing the baseball expose Ball Four, tells the story on himself about being giddy over his invitation to dinner and drinks with superstars Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford; only to have them send him to an address in a burned out Detroit warehouse district.
A locker room story about the prolific quote master, Yogi Berra (Yogi complaining about New York restaurant Toots Shor’s, “No wonder nobody comes here no more–too crowded!” Defending one of his outfielder’s errors, “He didn’t see the ball because it gets late out there early.” And, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” Just kidding, that was Kermit the Frog.) goes that after a tough loss one of the players was softly playing the harmonica. Notorious grouch manager, Casey Stengel, shouted at the player to quit playing and think about the lousy game they played. The unnamed player didn’t hear Stengel and inquired to Yogi about what he had said. Yogi’s reply: “He said play it louder. He likes it.”
That’s the pastime, overflowing with lore and statistics. But, the real beauty is the pastoral pace. Games aren’t timed and aren’t in a hurry. Spectators, whether in the ballpark or watching on television, can take the time to enjoy the company of fellow believers. A friend and I used to hook his small black and white to a 50 foot extension cord on baseball afternoons and put the set in the apple orchard next to his house. We’d sit; watch some; talk some; and consume a concoction of crushed ice, frozen limeade, and gin until the shadows and the final out sent us stumbling on our way.
The Tigers aren’t very good this year, but it doesn’t matter. They will win some exciting games and will ooze hope for next season. I’ll proudly wear my cap emblazoned with the Old English D. The D on the dark blue hat is white when the boys are at home and orange when out on the road–a little spice to keep the party lively.