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Monday, December 08, 2003

Baseball As Context (Part III)

This is part III of Baseball as Context...

Although the Cubs have brought me much joy and more than a little sorrow, baseball also made its way into my life in other ways. The first major league game I actually attended was as a five year old in the Astrodome in 1973. My family made the game since a pitcher for the Mets, Jim McAndrew, had been a few years behind my mother in school. McAndrew was a pretty decent spot starter and reliever with good control for the Mets from 1968-1973 on a staff already loaded with talent. He went on to play one more season with the Padres. Although I still have the autographed program and have seen pictures taken at the game, my only recollection is discussing with my brother how small the players looked on the field from our vantage point in the upper deck. Later, when my wife and I lived in Houston for a few years after college I was able to confirm this recollection by sitting in almost that same upper deck spot when the Rangers' Nolan Ryan played an exhibition game in Houston before the start of the season.

The most prized piece of memorabilia from the visit, however, was the autographed team ball that McAndrew presented to my mother. All of the players and coaches from that pennant winning team (they went on to lose the World Series to the A's of Charlie Finley) signed it in either regular or blue pencil and it includes the signatures of Willie Mays, Tom Seaver, Yogi Berra, Jerry Koosman, Rusty Staub, and Tug McGraw. A few years ago my parents decided to disperse some of these heirlooms to their children and a drawing was held between my brother and me for the ball. I lost but as a consolation prize received a ball my mother had inherited from her uncle, who at one time ran a hotel in Florida frequented by the St. Louis Cardinals during spring training. The ball dates from the 1940s and includes the signatures of Stan Musial, Enos Slaughter, Harry Brecheen, Joe Garagiola, and Solly Hemus. Not a bad consolation prize and it sits proudly above my desk in a place of honor.

Another of my earliest intersections with baseball is the 1975 World Series. During the series I stayed over night at a friend's house and we watched the historic sixth game. I rooted for the Red Sox, a move that would seem quite out of character shortly thereafter since I became a National League guy, since my friend was rooting for the Reds. I can't honestly say I remember seeing Fisk hit the game winner in the bottom of the 12th but I do remember being enthralled with the game many judge as the best ever played and think that it was probably the first time I realized how exciting baseball could be.

Once I and my brother had caught the baseball bug my family indulged our passion by scheduling our summer vacations (typically 2 week road trips in the big green van complete with stickers on the back window from each state we visited) around our own baseball seasons (about which more is to follow) and coinciding with big league games in other cities. Two particular games in St. Louis stand out, the first a Sunday matinee in July of 1979 or 1980 in which a Bill Buckner homerun curving around the right field foul pole, secured the Cubs victory, and the second, a 17 inning affair (my mother fortunately brought a book) with the Pirates in 1982 which saw the Cardinals threaten in each inning past the 10th but ultimately lose the game in the wee hours of the morning. Without much money of my own I was dependant on my father for food during the game. He shut off the spicket around the 2nd inning (we had arrived in time for batting practice and ballpark food was not cheap even then) and so by the time the game ended after midnight I was ravenously hungry but had to wait until the following day. Legend has it, for I admit to being dazed by hunger, that my brother and I went 17 hours without food (quite a feat for teenage boys), fittingly matching the Cardinals futility. It was this game as well where we witnessed Willie "Pops" Stargell in his final year with the Pirates, pinch hit and swat a line drive that nearly took off the second baseman's head before hitting the right field wall on the fly. Stargell, then of substantial girth, ambled to first with a single before being immediately pinch run for.

The most memorable two week car trip, for both its relation to baseball and because we visited several Civil War battlefields including Gettysburg (I was also a Civil War buff) was the year I was fifteen (1983) as we traveled east from Iowa. In addition to games seen in Montreal (remembered as very clean with fans who were quite polite but quiet) and Pittsburg (very dirty and with fans that cursed and threw batteries at their own Dave Parker), the ultimate experience was the afternoon spent in Cooperstown, the high and holy shrine of baseball. The feeling of awe and the connection with history in viewing the Babe's bat and Willie Mays' New York Giants jersey was truly thrilling. My brother and I were even permitted to peruse the library where we searched for statistics on lefty/righty breakdowns , then a difficult thing to secure before the "democratization" of baseball statistics through the discovery (assuredly not too strong a word) of sabermetrics and the wide publication of wonderful books such as the Bill James Baseball Abstract and the Elias Baseball Analyst not to mention the Internet.

These trips are remembered not only for the intersection with baseball. As I now look back on them I find that their ultimate value lies in the sense of geography (we also took several trips west where baseball was more difficult to come by) and history that ultimately bred perspective. They helped shape in me a view of America as a beautiful, vast, a richly complex nation that I still carry today. For that, as for the more traditional things for which children should be thankful, I'll always be indebted to my parents.

In specific and concrete ways, then, baseball can and often does connect us to history. A visit to old Comiskey Park, Fenway Park or Wrigley Field allows us to relive moments gone by and feel in a very visceral way the events that transpired there. In one early visit to Wrigley, for example, I was awestruck by the thought that Babe Ruth stood at that very home plate just a few feet away and called his shot against Charlie Root in the 1932 World Series. Of course, at that time I was not aware of the legendary nature of the "called shot" incident since the children's baseball book I read from cover to cover many times over simply recounted the legends of the game. Unfortunately, in all likelihood Ruth was merely gesturing towards the jeering Cubs dugout. I'm glad that at the time I didn't know the factual, but infinitely less interesting, truth.

I liken experiences like these to the one enjoyed very recently when I viewed for the first time, along with my seven year old daughter, Jupiter and four of its moons through a small starter telescope. In that moment we were immediately connected with Galileo across a span of 400 years, whose own crude telescope gave him a view very similar to ours in 1610.

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