Sunday, October 20, 2013

Here Are Five Good Reasons Why Baseball is The Best Sport

I’ve been a baseball fan for about as long as I can remember. 

I guess I have my father to thank for that.  My sister and I lived here in the Boston area growing up, but my father and stepmom lived in Baltimore, and when we were young, we spent part of our summers down there.  This always meant a few trips to Memorial Stadium to see the Orioles play. So, I grew up watching some pretty fine ball players.  To this day, I consider Paul Blair one of the best defensive outfielders to ever play the game, and Mark Belanger one of the finest shortstops.  Oh yeah, and who was that third baseman?  Right, some guy named Brooks Robinson.

As I got older, I grew into a fanatical Red Sox fan - an easy thing to do, living here.  I was in college in 1975, and on the staff of the school newspaper.  The building where we published the paper was in Kenmore Square, not far from Fenway Park.  We’d get together on Sundays to put the paper together, and if there was a game, we could hear the crowd cheering as we worked.  That World Series still ranks as one of my all time biggest thrills.

After the Sox traded away most of my favorite players after the 1978 season (I still have a handwritten letter from Bill Lee, scribbled on hotel stationary from a road trip to Cleveland), I turned my allegiance to the Kansas City Royals.  Their third baseman, George Brett (who wore number 5 specifically because of his worship of the afore-mentioned Mr. Robinson), was one of the game’s rising young stars at the time, and the rest of the team was just as impressive.  Frank White played brilliant second base, and Hal McRae was one of the league’s premier Designated Hitters.  A pitching staff that included Paul Splittorff and Dennis Leonard.  Veteran catcher Darrell Porter.  The Royals were a great mix of young up and comers and guys who’d been around.  But it was George Brett who became my favorite player, a gritty, tough guy who never minded getting his uniform dirty.  He played 20 seasons, all of them with the Royals, and in 1980, he spent the entire season flirting with a .400 batting average, ending the season at a pretty damned impressive .390.  He’s still my all time favorite, and one of the best hitters I’ve ever seen.

Sometime around 1989, Mike and I started a Rotisserie Baseball league with some friends.  This was in the days before everyone had a computer.  I remember spending one day a week at work on my lunch break, in the lunch room with paper, pen, The Sporting News and a calculator, doing the stats for our league.  At some point, we “graduated” to an old Radio Shack computer Mike’s parents gave us.  It came with a printer – you know, the kind with that paper with the perforations on the sides?  It made doing the stats easier, but I can’t even imagine what a cakewalk it must be to do something like that with today’s technology! 

Cover of 1991 Bad Hops yearbook (now a
collector's item, and extremely rare).

Of course, with today’s iMacs and laptops, Photoshop and the like, the world also would have been deprived of the yearbook I made one season for my team.  The Bad Hops yearbook included such gems as a photo of the Owner/President/General Manager (that would be me) and our manager (the late Ken Brett, George’s older brother and a decent pitcher in his day) planning strategy together, thanks to a pair of scissors and a copier.  As was the case in all other photos of me that appeared in the yearbook, I was inexplicably dressed in my wedding dress, with the same baby’s breath in my hair that I wore for my wedding.  Odd, until you realize that the wallet size wedding photo I happened to have extras of was the perfect size for cutting out my smiling face and gluing it to the body standing next to Ken, or whoever else I might wish to be seen strategizing with.
Note the stylish "Bad Hops" jerseys.

To this day, I can’t help but laugh when I think about the photo of Nolan Ryan’s family I had in my yearbook, with the head of Dave Winfield (an outfielder for the Bad Hops that season) cut out and glued on top of Ryan’s.  The caption?  “Outfielder Dave Winfield spends time with the family of Nolan Ryan.”

Fun times.

My most entertaining yearbook entry.

One thing that rose out of the ashes of our league was my new team allegiance.  All of my favorite Royals players were long gone, and I couldn’t help but notice that, in every draft, I seemed to pick up more and more Yankees players.  And one thing I can tell you, if you’ve never played in a Rotisserie league, is that, when you do, you tend to follow only "your" players.  So, after the last out of the last season of our league, I sort of naturally evolved into something people in these parts don’t particularly cherish – a Yankees fan.  Which I remain, to this day.  As painful as it is to admit to such a thing, after the horrific season we just endured.

I consider myself a Patriots fan, and watch most of their games.  I’ve even been known to watch the Celtics or Bruins, but only during the post-season.  So, as you can see, baseball is definitely #1 for me.

Which can only mean one thing.  It’s time for me to give you five good reasons why baseball is the best sport.

1.  There is No Time Clock

In every other major sport in this country, most of the strategizing centers on use of the time clock.  (Ask the Saints, after what Tom Brady did to them last weekend.)  But you know what?  In baseball there IS no time clock!  A baseball game can last two hours, or it can last so long, it has to be suspended for the night and resumed the following day.  A regulation baseball game is nine innings.  But, if you’re the home team, and you’re leading in the game after the visiting team bats in the top of the ninth, the game only lasts 8½ innings.  If the score is tied after nine complete innings, then the teams keep playing.  I’ve seen games that have gone more than 20 innings.  When the game starts, there is absolutely no way to accurately predict exactly what time it’s going to end.  And how great is that?

2.  Baseball is For Normal Size People

For the most part, major league baseball players are the same size and build as your friend at work, or the guy who lives next door.  Freddie Patek, the three-time All Star shortstop who played most of his 13-year career with the Royals, was 5’5” tall and weighed 148 pounds.  Except for the homerun sluggers, most baseball players rely more on speed and agility than they do on size or strength.  I am convinced that if women are ever going to break the sex barrier in a major league sport, it will be in baseball.  I don’t see a reason in the world why a talented female athlete would not be able to compete against male baseball players.  And wouldn’t that be an exciting thing to see!

3.  The Rich History

More than any other sport, baseball has a history rich in eccentric characters, tragic figures, heroes, villains, you name it.  Mark Fidrych, a pitcher for the Detroit Tigers back in the late ‘70’s, used to talk to the ball before he threw it.  Tony Conigliaro, a talented young Red Sox outfielder, was hit in the eye by a pitch, and was never the same player again.  In his late 30’s, he suffered a heart attack and lapsed into a coma, eventually passing away at age 45.  Roberto Clemente, the amazingly talented Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder, died at 38 in a plane crash on his way to deliver aid to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. Alex Rodriguez…as I said, I am a Yankees fan.  I’d just as soon not even talk about Alex Rodriguez.  But, as I said, baseball has its villains.

But, the point is, even if they’re not a baseball fan, most people know who Babe Ruth is.  They know who Mickey Mantle is.  They know who Joe DiMaggio is.  Baseball, more than any other sport, transcends demographics.  On the other hand, I heard Howard Stern on the radio today actually refer to Patriots quarterback Tom Brady as “Giselle’s husband.”  He didn’t know his name, a name that is as familiar to New Englanders as that of the President.

4.  It’s Played In (Relatively) Nice Weather

Basketball and hockey are played indoors.  Football is played in any type of weather, even heavy snow. But the baseball season starts in early April, just as the weather is starting to get nice (here on the East Coast, that is, so hold your commentary, Dodgers fans!).  Those early games at Fenway can turn pretty chilly once it gets past 6:00.  The season then extends into the “dog days” of summer, finally wrapping up in early fall, just as it starts to get chilly again.  And it’s played, for the most part, outdoors, in the fresh air, with the smell of hot dogs wafting through the air. You can’t beat that!

5.  Baseball is Beautiful

Don’t laugh.  Baseball is beautiful, and it’s beautiful in so many different ways. 

Every single year, as I walk up into the seating area at Fenway and see the field for the first time, I tear up.  The sight of the perfect diamond, with the emerald green grass perfectly manicured around it, is just such a perfect image.  It represents childhood, and Americana, and all sorts of things that cynics like me tend to disregard much of the time.  But for those few hours, it all makes sense.

Baseball is beautifully logical.  There are always three strikes for a strikeout, and four balls for a walk.  There are always three outs for each team in an inning.  A leftie will be called in to get a lefthanded slugger out in the bottom of the ninth with runners on base. The kid who’s been stealing bases like crazy will be called in to run for the veteran outfielder in a close game.

Baseball is physically beautiful to watch.  The windup of a pitcher, the swing of a truly great hitter, is a thing of such exquisite perfection, it can take your breath away.  And the “homerun trot?”  Magical.

The Red Sox are playing tonight.  I promised my best friend, who has been through some rough times recently, that I’d root for them to get to the World Series, and tonight could be the night.  It’s proving to be easier than I thought it would be – but don’t despair, come April, it’s the boys in pinstripes who’ll once again have my heart.  The Sox broke it one too many times for me to ever trust them again.

That being said, Game Six of the 1975 World Series will always be one of my all-time best memories, and will always make me cry.

That’s just the way baseball works. 

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