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Friday, December 12, 2003

Baseball As Context (Part IV)

Here is the 4th installment of my essay Baseball As Context...

I was born in 1968, which fans will instantly recognize as the year of the pitcher which saw Bob Gibson of the Cardinals compile his microscopic 1.12 earned run average, Carl Yasztremski lead the AL with a .301 batting average and which, as a result, the mound was lowered. So it should come as no great shock that eventually I became a pitcher (although I was also born on April 8, exactly six years before Hank Aaron would hit is 714th homerun to eclipse the Bambino). My brother and I began playing baseball at the age of seven, a full three years younger than Pete Rose, as I had read and constantly reminded myself in hopes that I could make the big leagues.

From that time on my memories of spring, summer, and early fall are dominated by playing baseball. In those years in our small town the neighborhood kids would play ball almost every day. Our town was fortunately a "baseball town" and so there seemed to be more interest in the game perhaps than in other places. As fortune would have it we lived only a block from the little league and men’s softball park and only rarely had to resort to playing in empty lots without fences where broken windows were a danger. We would begin at 9 am each morning (in the summer and Saturdays if school was still in session) with the ritualistic calling of the players. My brother and I would get on the phone and call all the kids we thought would play. Of course, we concentrated our efforts on brother combinations like the Fullers and Fratzkes, which was particularly effective since it was a two for one deal. The minimum needed to make a game was six, three on a side, although eight was much better and ten was considered ideal. We played at a Little League park, but to enhance the action we located home plate at a spot in the shallow outfield and put out our own bases with gloves or trash or sometimes even real plastic bases that one of the kids would bring. Of course the big draw for playing in the outfield was that it presented fences that were within our reach.

With six or eight players we played "pitcher’s hand" which meant that the pitcher acted as a proxy for the first baseman and if he received the throw while still in contact with the pitcher’s mound before the runner reached first the out was recorded. We also employed the time honored tradition of "ghost runners", necessary if a team of thee or four ended up with all of their men on base and who occupied the lead base or bases and could only advance as they were forced to by the next batted ball. We threw overhand but the pitching was not paramount. Indeed, like early forms of baseball, the pitcher’s job was to throw strikes so that the hitter could put the ball in play.

Even then I was a classic good field no-hit player. It’s not that I couldn’t hit but that I didn’t hit for power, which is what truly counted ("chicks dig the long ball" as I later learned). I would play the critical shortstop/left field position and hit leadoff. My brother had the power. We never kept track of innings but would play until it was time to go or perhaps until one team got so far ahead we needed to start over to make it interesting. I do know we played enough ball so that my brother collected over 40 homeruns one summer and I stole over 70 bases (although we didn’t always allow steals, which depended on how many fielders were available). The statistics weren’t formal but we tracked in our heads what was important.

Some of those games were wild, many were contentious, and some were pure joy, like the time I scaled the chain link fence ala Tori Hunter to rob one of the Fratzke boys of a homerun. Along with the statistics our own collection of legends grew up around the "lob ball" games as we called them, including Doug Miller’s mammoth blast that cleared the street beyond center field and nailed the lawn mower then in operation much to the surprise of its operator, or the Kingman-like wallop of my brother’s that sailed in a majestic arc between the house and garage behind the street in right, our own Sheffield Avenue.

Apart from the fun of it all, however, and with the perspective of almost 30 years, the facet of these games I treasure most is our good fortune at having lived in a time and place that allowed the games to go on unsupervised and unstructured. In the end it was kids learning to get along (sometimes not so successfully) and making up their own rules playing a game that they loved. It is primarily for this reason that I feel some sadness for my daughters, who I know will not have the opportunities to experience an unstructured sport (let alone almost any other activity) in today’s world of jam-packed, over extended schedules. My experience of baseball played in this way will immediately ring true to legions of American males as I was reminded recently by the words of Carl Sandburg.

"On many a summer day I played baseball starting at eight in the morning, running home at noon for a quick meal, and again with fielding and batting until it was too dark to see the ball. These were times when my head seemed empty of everything but baseball names and figures. I could name the players who led in batting and fielding, and the pitchers who had won the most games. And I had my opinions on who was better than anybody else in the national game."

So why the good field, no hit tag? As a rookie in pee-wee league just after I had taken up baseball, I do recall that I couldn’t catch the ball and I was an even worse hitter. After being relegated to the purgatory of kids baseball – right field – for the season and barely fouling off a pitch, I decided to apply myself to serious training.

I was fortunate to have a good friend, the aforementioned Doug Miller along with an older brother that I could pester to help me improve. The next season, beginning as early as possible, which in eastern Iowa is typically mid March, Doug and I played catch and threw each other grounders and fly balls every single day and sometimes more than once per day. I diligently practiced backhanded stops and coming up to throw to first like my idol, Cubs shortstop Ivan DeJesus, did after receiving the relay from the second baseman on a double play. In fact, after the next season, in which some improvement was evident, there were tryouts to be promoted to Little League. I went to the tryouts not expecting much but after dazzling the other players and coaches with a nifty backhanded stop of grounder in the hole at second, I got the call. Consequently, and because of that single play, I became a left-handed second baseman in Little League and subsequently played on our town’s All-Star team in several local tournaments. As there was no future in being a left-handed second baseman, I also started doing some pitching. Although I distinctly recall hitting a couple of guys in the head (they were left-handed and were likely crowding the plate) I did start to achieve some control and pitched quite a bit in my last Little League campaign.

My fielding was also improved by my brother, who never ceased to hit me fly balls and ground balls in the neighbor’s empty lot out behind our house. He would throw the ball up and hit it and I would track it down. He would hit them over my head so I could practice going back and would hit liners so I’d have to judge the distance. This continued through several years and I eventually became a competent outfielder.

My hitting was another story, however. I am left-handed but as far back as I can remember I’ve always batted right-handed. Since there are natural advantages to batting from the left side including being a step closer to first base as well as taking advantage of the angle of a right hander’s delivery, it is rare that left handed throwers bat right handed. In fact, in the major leagues it is ten times more likely that the situation is reversed. Two of the most prominent to do so were both first baseman, the slick fielding Hal Chase, who played primarily for the Yankees and Reds from 1905 to 1919, and a Yale first baseman who went on to relieve Ronald Regan in the oval office. In modern times, certainly Rickey Henderson has been the most effective lefty swinging from the right side.

Like the origin of baseball itself, the origin of my right-handed swing is lost in the mists of time and likely due only to the contingency of history. My theory is that as a five or six year old I picked up some golf clubs with a friend and we began to hit balls around an empty lot. After doing that for a full day the swing stuck and my course was set. From then on hitting the right-handed curveball and hitting for power were not to be. Had I remained a left-handed hitter I might have developed a Ted Williams like swing, or better yet I may have become a switch hitter in the mold of Mickey Mantle. C’est la vie.

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