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Thursday, December 18, 2003

Baseball As Context (Part VI)

The final installment (Part VI) of Baseball As Context...

As I reached high school age I had become an outfielder and pitcher. At the time I was playing both on the junior varsity team and on a Babe Ruth league team in our town for which my Dad served as a coach. Although I didn’t get to play much on the JV team as a freshman (1 at bat and 2 innings in the outfield, for which my old coach should be ashamed by the way), my parents dutifully took me to each game in both leagues, which totaled between 50 and 60 games in each of those summers. On more than one occasion I remember playing a double header in Babe Ruth league, followed by eating and changing in the car on the way to the JV game.

I did, however, get to play regularly in the Babe Ruth league and patrolled centerfield and pitched on occasion. Our team was not bad and our fiercest rivalry was with a town team from about 40 miles away. They were a good team but what really made us shudder was the presence of "Big Al", the hardest throwing pitcher I’d ever seen armed with a blazing fastball that sometimes exceeded 90 miles per hour. Fortunately, his curve ball was poor and hittable although I typically completed my swing long before it reached the plate. In all, I was content with my strikeouts and occasional walks (his control wasn’t great) and felt fortunate that I was never killed by one his fastballs.

My sophomore season in JV was markedly better and I played centerfield there as well as pitched and even began acting as a reserve for the varsity team. At that time my control and curve ball (to which I and legions of other pitchers who’s arms did not contain the magic to throw a good fastball, will be eternally grateful to Candy Cummings its inventor now justly enshrined in the Hall of Fame) were really coming along and I felt that I had the ability to at least hit regions of the strike zone on command. I recall having concentrated on control after reading the book by Ferguson Jenkins, a master of control during his career and particularly while racking up six consecutive 20-win seasons for the Cubs in the late 60s and early 70s. In fact, in 1971 Jenkins walked only 37 men in 325 innings of work while striking out 263. In 1982 the Cubs reacquired Fergie where he spent his final two seasons, the first a resurgent season where he pitched over 200 innings and won 14 games. He also recorded his 3,000 strikeout in 1982, a game played early in the season in San Diego. I distinctly recall watching his previous start in Los Angeles while scoring the game and marveling at his masterful use of the corners.

Unfortunately, the low light of the season (which ended with the Cubs defeat at the hands of the Padres) was the fact that our coach was insane. And I do mean insane. Some of his more outrageous antics included getting thrown out of at least two games for arguing balls and strikes, cursing at insects while hitting fungos during infield practice, and berating players by calling them "society zeros" when they didn’t play well enough or made errors in the field. Fortunately, the game can survive even the destructive presence of behavior reminiscent of John McGraw or Ty Cobb, and we continued on mostly having fun while out on the field anyway.

Finally, by my junior year things began to click and I became a regular starting pitcher and left fielder on a team that would win the conference championship the next two seasons. My senior year culminated in a 9-0 record as a pitcher and a batting average good enough to earn All-Conference and district honors. I even hit a couple homeruns, the first of which was off of a left hander and which just cleared the left field fence as I raced head down furiously for second base.

Baseball, however, as is often said "is second only to death as a leveler" since it is ultimately a game based on failure (for anyone not named Barry Bonds anyway, he of the over .500 on base percentage in 2002 and thus a man that does not fail more than he succeeds, when he walked a record 198 times). The final game I pitched as a senior was a sub-state tournament game against a larger school. The first batter smashed a line drive to center field that happened to be right at our center fielder while the third batter of the inning hit a hard one hopper right back to the mound. I got out of the inning with no hits and no runs but felt that it might be a long day. However, I used my control to nibble at the corners and with some good defense, I pitched a shutout and we won 8-0. It was the best pure pitching performance of my life and it was in the most important game we had played. Our next tournament game however, certainly leveled me. In left field this time, the first opposing batter hit a line drive directly to me which I promptly dropped. I went hitless and to make the failure complete, gave up a couple of runs in relief in the game that would end our season and my high school career.

After high school I attended Iowa State University, majoring in computer science where, despite my recent disappointment, I still loved baseball. As Robert Adair showed in his book The Physics of Baseball and as I subsequently learned, physics is a deeply fascinating subject. However, I recall that it was far from my first priority in the fall of 1986. While ostensibly paying attention to my professor in the corner of a crowded lecture hall, I listened to the Astros Billy Hatcher put Newton’s laws of motion (F=ma) into practice.

Although not good enough play at a division I school like Iowa State (my fastball topped out around 75mph), I and a good friend played for two summers during college for the Muscatine Red Sox, a team made up of young and not so young players that played other town teams during the hot and humid Iowa summers. What was interesting about the Red Sox, however, was not the players so much as the manager, George Long. George had started the Red Sox in the 1930s and ran the team longer than Connie Mack managed the Philadelphia A’s. I recall him telling us, as I’m sure he enjoyed doing to each new crop of players, the story of when Babe Ruth came to the area to play an exhibition game. However, by the time I played for the Red Sox, George was well into his 80s and his "managing" consisted of encouraging the players with random chatter from the dugout and positioning his 5'5" 120 pound frame behind the pitchers mound with an old catcher’s mitt during batting practice. If you were pitching batting practice you had to be sure to throw the ball on the inner half of the plate so that your teammates wouldn’t inadvertently kill their coach. The real managing was done by his son, a “young man” in his 50s.

My two memories of playing for the Red Sox included throwing a 5 inning no-hitter in Muscatine, Iowa in which the only batter who reached base did so when the first baseman dropped an easy pop-fly (but I’m not bitter). The second was when George was closing in on his 1,000th win as a manager and I was given the ball to pitch as he was sitting on 998. While I don’t recall the details, we won the game and I got win number 999 for George. After his 1,000th there were stories both in the local newspapers and a small blurb in Sports Illustrated. I’m not sure how long George continued to manage or when he died but I’m certain that he loved baseball perhaps more than any other person I’ve ever met.

After those two seasons I thought I’d hung up my glove for good. However, after getting married, landing a software development job with Chevron and moving to Houston I once again got the urge and played for one season in a league in the Houston area for a team called the Orioles. While I pitched a little and played a little outfield, my arm began to get sore (a condition I attributed to playing in softball leagues for Chevron and making outfield throws without properly warming up). However, after moving to Kansas City in 1994 I played one more season with a local team and enjoyed a little success on the mound as well as the plate (I specifically recall an 8 inning shutout that I was particularly proud of). Alas, that proved to be my last season as a child soon followed accompanied by the increased busyness that a full family life entails.

These days I root for the Cubs and the Royals and attend as many games as possible (17 in 2003) and follow the ups and downs of the long season. And so now as I write this, still deep in the shadow of the Cubs most recent collapse, I’m comforted that baseball will continue to provide context in my life, sometimes even coming to the forefront in great hope as it has this October, but even in disappointment always enriching it. You never know, next year might be the year.

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