Something Like a War

It was forty years ago, this year, that I fell in love with baseball: October 1982 and I was nine years old. My team, the St. Louis Cardinals, were in the hunt for the World Series title, facing off against the Milwaukee Brewers. We we considered the underdogs, and I was glued to the TV nearly-nightly during that magical fall, determined to do my bit as a fan to make sure we won. The whole region was crazy with Cardinal Fever that Autumn and it made everything feel electrified and cheerful, almost like a second Christmas.

Baseball fandom was nearly mandatory where I grew up. From the first pitch of Spring Training to the last (usually) heartbreaking out of the season, nearly everyone was following the Cardinals game. It was almost impossible to ignore. From TV’s and car stereos, shop radios to store PA systems, repair shops, gas stations, car dealerships, pawn shops, music stores, everyone had the game playing in some form or fashion.

The Christmas before, my Aunt Shirley (aware of my budding baseball interest) had given me a pendant she’d purchased from Avon: a small, pewter baseball-mitt with a golden baseball in its center, hanging on a silver chain.

Early in the season, I had taken to wearing the pendant while watching the games on TV or listening to them on the radio. During crucial plays, I’d rub the baseball in the center of the mitt with feverish thumbs, closing my eyes and whispering guilty prayers to baseball gods I still only-sort-of-don’t believe in.

By the time my Cardinals made it to the World Series in October of ’82, I was convinced that thing was magic. Every time I rubbed the now-worn pendant and Ozzie made the catch, or Willie knocked one over the wall, it confirmed my faith. Every time it failed, I berated myself as a heretic, unworthy of being a fan–certain that my trip to the bathroom or lapse in concentration had failed both the team and the talisman.

In every other aspect of my life, I am a cold realist, but when it comes to baseball, I believe in miracles.

A little over a week ago, I was placed on hospice care.

Now, I’m not superstitious enough to think that there’s anything that the baseball gods can do about that, but there’s part of me that can’t help but notice that both my teams, the Cardinals and the Mariners, are surging in their divisions, and wouldn’t it be something if they defied the odds and met, in the last World Series I may ever see?

Only a baseball fan could believe in such a thing.

Baseball fans know the outlandish happens every day in the season. From April through October, 30 teams play 162 games nearly every day on the calendar, and nearly none of them go by without some Hollywood moment: some rookie gets a hit in his first at-bat in front of the hometown crowd; the retiring slugger drills one over the wall on his last at bat; the no-hitter happens; the underdog wins; the dynasty continues–they all happen every single day, somewhere, in front of some amazed crowd.

That’s what makes it so easy to believe. If you watch enough of those games every year, year in and out, you’ll have seen the impossible happen, repeatedly. It makes you believe in magic.

I believe that’s what initially attracted Americans to the game: they’re both built on the magical belief that you can win it all, despite overwhelming statistical evidence that you can’t.

You can’t be a baseball fan for any length of time and not know how to lose. Good teams still lose forty percent of their games; the very best hitters fail to reach base seventy percent of the time. Many seasons your team’s win/loss ratio will hover somewhere around fifty-fifty for a period long enough to become worisome. Some years teams can lose nearly half of their games and still win the World Series. The margins are that thin.

Failure is built into the game, and if you can’t come to terms with that, you’re going to have a bad time.

Again, a lot like being American.

But is excellence possible?

Absolutely! You see it every day! A lot of talent, a lot of hard work, a little luck, and…who knows? Maybe magic can happen.

I’ve seen it happen enough that I have hope.

For the country and the game.

I spend most afternoons and evenings in my recliner, a few inches from my bed, watching baseball on my big flat screen. I’ve long since become a shut-in, limited in my travels by the 25 foot length of my oxygen tubing. Even with that, by the time I reach the kitchen or the living room, 20 feet away, I’m usually gasping.

So I recline here and follow the daily fortunes of the St. Louis Cardinals from pitchers and catchers reporting at Spring Training all the way to (and hopefully through) the post-season. It’s an escape. It’s nostalgia. And I come by it honest: my maternal grandmother followed the games religiously, so did my dad, my uncles, cousins, friends, church congregation, and entire hometown.

Within a certain swath of the south-central United States, and certainly in my section of Southeast Missouri, Cardinals baseball was almost a religion. It can be equated to the fanatical devotion of Green Bay Packers or Dallas Cowboys fans. Both sports announcers and Cardinals fans themselves love to call themselves “the best fans in baseball”…and I hate it because it drips of a haughty sort of snobbery… but I love it because it’s absolutely true.

In the movie Bull Durham, Susan Sarandon’s character claims to have tried all the religions, but says she could only ever really get on board with the Church of Baseball.

That’s me. Mr. Church of Baseball.

I say all of that only to acknowledge my bias when I say: more people should watch baseball.

I know, I know.

Baseball is boring.

An internet friend whom I like and respect not only personally but also as a thinker and a writer, recently asked if anyone actually watched whole baseball games. He was a little incredulous when I said that I did.

“Whole games?”

Whole games. Sometimes a couple a day.

And I’m not even that big of a fan, comparatively. I know plenty of guys who know baseball statistics and strategies and can discuss them in such excruciating and exacting detail that it reminds me of Navy SEALS talking about ballistics or NASCAR fans talking about restrictor plates.

I’m casual, by comparison. I can’t quote statistics or discuss sabremeterics beyond what I saw on “Moneyball.”

That said, with even a small amount of effort, you can learn to read the pitches as they leave the pitcher’s hand, interpret the “equipment adjustments”, and understand the tactics and strategies that lie behind those steps out of the batter’s box, or steps off the pitcher’s mound, or slow trips up to it. There is never not something going on–you just have to know what to look for. There is always something happening in baseball if you want to watch it.

So why make the effort? Why do I advocate for you to watch?

There is, of course, the aforementioned magic of the kind that you feel blessed to have been alive to see: fathers and sons hitting back-to-back home runs in the same game; rookies throwing no-hitters their first time on the mound, walk-offs and grand slams in front of hometown crowds down to their last strike–baseball is just fun. And once you learn the positions and can recognize the casual physical supernaturality with which players execute their jobs, it becomes even more fun still.

But baseball is also beautiful in its eccentricity: no two ball parks are the same, not just externally but the fields themselves–different shapes, dimensions, slope of the ground, wall height. None of those things are standardized. What other sport doesn’t define and standardize the size and shape of the field? What other sport would tolerate different measurements both to and over the outfield wall? Contrast this with the absolutes of the infield: 90 feet between bases; 60 feet, 6 inches from the home plate to the rubber on the pitchers mound, no more, no less; the back tip of home plate must be 127 feet, 3 & 3/8ths inches to second base, which, like all base pads except home must be 15 inches square and between 3 and 5 inches thick. The baseball itself is between 5 and 5 and 1/4 ounces and is hand-stitched 108 times through the tough white cowhide which covers the center of yarn-wrapped cork or rubber.

And unlike any other sport, it is the defense that gets this ball.

If you are the offense you aren’t playing against a clock–there is no time limit. If the defense fails to put together 27 outs, you can play forever. There are dozens of instances in the modern ere of games going 22-25 innings and lasting over 8 hours. Which brings us to the most common complaint (also levied at televised golf)–the games are just too long.

There really is no way to spin this. Yes. Yes they are. Your average game will run three to three-and-a-half hours. I would argue that once you become a fan this is often more of a feature than a bug, but even for fans games can become tiresome after watching 162 games year in and out. My family would often use lulls in current games to talk about great moments in other games, or to critique the manager’s decisions, or grab a beer or some food. The lulls can be an important part of the experience of the game, like Super-Bowl Half Time is a bonding moment for a lot of people, so too are conversations had and activities performed during lulls in the game.

It should also be said that Major League Baseball is introducing all sorts of time-saving policies and practices, including bringing the Designated Hitter to the National League–a maneuver I’d sworn my entire life would force me to stop watching baseball. I still watched 140+ games. Next season they’re outlawing the infield shift. If I’m still alive, I’ll still watch, even though I’m a purist, I’m also honest enough to say that the game is becoming more fast-paced and exciting to watch, while still staying true to the game and its roots, which is the other reason you should watch: baseball and America and so intertwined from the root to the stem that they become reflective of one another and and you can see the one in the other.

You should watch baseball because it’s American.

Nothing you make you feel more American than a ballpark hot dog and a beer on a hot July day.

Baseball and America are a lot alike –from founding myths, to flawed Founders– and it’s hard not to look at one without seeing at least a little bit of the other.

Ty Cobb, possibly the best to ever play the game, and the most unfairly maligned player ever, characterized the game as “something like a war”. I always think of that at the end of Major League Baseball games because they don’t shake hands. Even NHL players shake hands after the final game of the Stanley Cup finals, but not MLB players. It is an intensity and aggression that is very American and very, very baseball.

But it’s not all about the muscle, we value smarts in America, and baseball –while seemingly simple on the surface requires real smarts to play at a high level. Catcher’s, especially, need to understand not only obscure rules and intricacies of the game, they also need to mentally track every player on the field’s strengths, weaknesses, and probabilities, all while enduring the most physically punishing position on the field.

Batter’s too, need to be smart; to be able to detect a pitcher’s arm angle, grip on the ball, spin and direction of the ball, and decide with a few hundredths of a second to start swinging, while the ball is still 30 feet away and travelling a hundred miles-per-hour. On top of that, they have to put the right swing on the ball for the right situation.

It’s a thinking person’s game. You can dive endlessly into the statistics and measure nearly every aspect of the game. You can reduce it to to numbers and formulas and statistics and think you have the game quantified, but like America, there is some sort of magic that the numbers can’t quite seem to account for, and you see it on display every day, in both the nation and the game–you can stand back and watch the improbable and magical occur in a way they do nowhere else in the world–or so it seems to us.

Today, it is a game dominated by Hispanic immigrants, though Asian recruiting is picking up too. The best player in the game –probably the best to play since Babe Ruth– is Japanese. In Cuba and the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico baseball is a cheap sport to take up, and getting drafted is a ticket to the US. We still can’t recruit Cubans directly, so there is a small industry of traffickers that get Cubans the MLB is interested in off the island and into one of the Mexican or Central American leagues until a statutory time is up, then the MLB brings them up to the states. We are still a country of immigrants, and baseball is still a sport for immigrants. A ticket out of tough times, just like it used to be for Nebraska farm boys and Pennsylvania coal miners.

Baseball, like America, is about opportunity.

Baseball is also about life.

People ask me what my favorite baseball movie is and I don’t even hesitate: “The Bad News Bears.” Why? because they lose in the end. Just like you’ll lose most of the time as a baseball fan. And in life you’ll probably lose more than you win. But it’s about showing up, getting up there and being counted. And who knows if you keep putting in the work, something magic might happen!

I long ago lost the pendant with the glove and ball on it, but still have my own baseball talismans for when the team and I need a little magic (a special Stan Musial jersey and a replica ball cap). It wasn’t enough to get the Mariners and Cardinals together in The Series (the season ended while I was was working on this piece, the Cardinals won their division but couldn’t advance in the playoffs), no matter how hard I rubbed the bill.

I don’t know how much magic is left in that old cap, but maybe there’s enough in there to let me see one more season of baseball. And if not? That’s OK, I’ve learned to deal with disappointment.

I’m a baseball fan.

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