Jul

22

 I like sunshine. For me, the best time of the year is June. The days are getting longer, the air is warming up, and pitchers' arms are getting limber and hitting their (hopefully) triple digit marks—or in the case of the knuckleballers, not hitting them. Summer solstice is my favorite day. Of the whole year. Let the sun shine, let the sun shine in. Perfect weather for baseball, for as Walt Whitman called it, "America's game."

For some time, football has been in ascendency in the US, and baseball falling from its perch as the "national pastime." With the development of the replay challenges, pastime certainly fits. I'd add in the time the pitchers spend prancing about on the mound. What are they thinking about up there? Fantasizing about when the mound is raised another 8 inches? The past two years haven't been kind to football, and I think it safe to suggest that football is now on a down spiral. That some parents in Texas are steering their children clear of school football teams tells me that pro football's problems are just starting. Maybe that's the reason for the increasing popularity of soccer in the US.

Baseball. Growing up, it was easy to imagine that one was Mantle at the plate, Robinson snagging the unplayable ball at the hot corner, Koufax throwing the unhittable curve (well before Clint Eastwood), Mays with a basket catch. My curve ball never did break, but that didn't mean I couldn't try throwing it as though it did. Take a look at the leading players throughout baseball's history, and you'll find lots of kids in outsized bodies, kind of like a Big goes to the ballpark sort of thing. During the 1920s, as baseball tried coming to terms with the Blacksox fiasco (it was well beyond a scandal), Babe Ruth appeared and salvaged the game, leading it to new heights. Ruth was one big kid. Maybe that's why kids flocked to him and he was willing to engage them as he did. Fast forward to the 1990s, and one finds the national pastime struggling with the body blow of a strike. Not many Americans were particularly happy with the MLB during the first half of the 1990s. Players, owners, didn't matter who, Americans were upset with them. There were lightening rods—George "I need to fire Billy Martin one more time before I die" Steinbrenner is but one example. There were others.

The strike could have been the knockout blow for baseball, such was the level of discontent with it. For a period of time, I swore I'd never go back to the ballpark. (My wife was all too happy that I decided I had been too hasty in that decision—she didn't like to go with me, and it gave her some well-earned time for, well, those things that women do when they get together for lunch and an afternoon out. Fortunately, there were rarely new hats or dresses awaiting me on returning from ballpark.)

Yes, a knockout blow. Except for one person, one player who would play in the same position as Ruth did in the early 1920s: Cal Ripken. It's now a generation that has grown without Cal on the diamond. Few of them know about how he and a few others redefined the position of shortstop from what it had been for a century. Away from the Luis Aparicio style of fleet afoot, contact hitting, "get on base" to be driven home type of shortstop. Cal was big, strong, a quiet leader, perhaps, but a leader all the same. He came to work everyday, and that was something John Q. Public could relate to. The millionaire players, not so much (not that Cal wasn't well paid for his efforts). One sportswriter tried to ask Cal about his work ethic when it became clear in the early 1990s that he was in position to challenge Gehrig's 2130 game streak. Cal asked the reporter if he came to work every day. The reporter replied that he did. Cal followed, asking if the reporter liked coming to work every day. "For the most part," he replied, "but some days are just bad." "Same for me," Cal said. "And if I don't play, I don't get paid any more than you do when you don't work." Perhaps, Mr Ripken, not quite, but John Q Public understood well enough. It was Ripken's passing of Gehrig's streak with nationally televised games the likes of which hadn't been seen since Hank Aaron hit number 715. Those games, that streak shook off baseball's funk. Football may have become the national sport, baseball, though, was back. People focused on Ripken and his streak (with stats that would assure a spot in Cooperstown in any era), much as they had Ruth and his four-baggers.

Fast forward a couple of decades. Baseball has gone through an exasperating scandal of performance enhancing drugs with fallen heroes like Raphael Palmero and Barry Bonds. Through it all, though, was the Yankee captain, Derek Jeter. No Yankee Clipper—the team didn't perform well enough to assemble any sort of record comparable to the Yankees in the middle part of the 20th century. But Jeter was like the foundation around which the baseball club operated. And his performance commanded attention well beyond his base of New York City. There was never any question about whether Jeter had used PEDs. It would have been so out of character for him to have done so. Possible, sure. Anything's possible. But 10 sigma events aren't something that one bases one's understanding upon.

Jeter will no doubt grace the halls of Cooperstown soon enough. This year, he said before the season began, would be his last one. Yesterday's All Star Game will be his last one, too. When he went onto the field and was then brought back off of it—as happens in All Star Games as managers try to use everyone on their team—he received a well earned ovation. Earlier, the recognition from his peers underscored the man's significance to the game—not just his performance but his commanding ability on the field and at the plate. There was little mention of ARod last night, he of the suspended in association with PED list. Lots of mention of Jeter. And Jeter, like Cal ("Silent Cal") accepted it, enjoyed it, and then went back to doing his thing—being a member of a winning team. Thank you, Mr. Jeter.

Baseball has been down for a time now. It's about to rise again.In the immortal words of the Great Man:

"People will come, Ray. They'll come to Iowa for reasons they can't even fathom. They'll turn up your driveway not knowing for sure why they're doing it. They'll arrive at your door as innocent as children, longing for the past. "Of course, we won't mind if you look around", you'll say, "It's only $20 per person". [Prescient–it does indeed run about $20 a head these days.] They'll pass over the money without even thinking about it: for it is money they have and peace they lack. And they'll walk out to the bleachers; sit in shirtsleeves on a perfect afternoon. They'll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines, where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes. And they'll watch the game and it'll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick they'll have to brush them away from their faces. People will come Ray. The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it's a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good and that could be again. Oh…people will come Ray. People will most definitely come."

(Note to the reader: My daughter goes to school in Grinnell, Iowa, known for its regional hospital, regional John Deere dealership, regional WalMart. No regional Starbucks, though. Most of her fellow students are from the MidWest, often from Iowa and Central/Western Illinois. She found out during her freshman year that many (most?) have no idea what the Field of Dreams is or that there's a cornfield in northeast Iowa of any cultural significance. Her generation has some catching up to do. Just saying.)
 


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