Bring ‘Em On

baseball-snow

Now that the 12 Days of Christmas have given way to the Magi, my epiphany reveals that I’ve heard very little from baseball’s winter leagues. Plus, I haven’t witnessed a baseball game since the Arizona Fall League Championship. Horrors.

Despite MLB‘s #NoOffseason promos, it sure feels like #NoBaseball with a side of below zero wind chill to me. Instead of ice on the Susquehanna, I’m more than ready to see a freshly mown outfield expanse and a neatly groomed batter’s box. Rather than hear the furnace kick on every ten seconds, I could really go for the echoing crack of the bat or a sizzling rope hitting a first baseman’s mitt.

Give me short sleeves (or at least baseball sleeves), a baseball cap and a good pitching match-up.  I want to get lost in the strategy of a pitching sequence or a perfectly executed hit-and-run play.

Put me in a seat at a ballpark where I can soak up the sun, make a cold draft “evaporate,” and arm chair manage my way through a tight, well-played ballgame. Between innings, we’ll talk about the prospects, the playoff chances of the big club, and the team’s new faces.

I’ll happily thaw by enjoying a couple of Spot Dogs (“Two up, please, Eric!”), stroll on the boardwalk in the sunshine, and pick up a slight breeze wafting toward left field. For me, two things that are never overrated: 1) warmth; and 2) baseball. Bring ’em on!

Baltimore’s Hidden Diamonds

Terry Hartzell and I both worked for the same Harrisburg-based broadcasting company longer ago than I’m willing to admit. (I’ll put it this way: when I first started on the air at Starview 92, I was too young to drink at station events.)

Fast-forward to the 90s when we worked together again, this time at a regional audio-video recording studio in Landisville. Not only did we make a great team writing scripts and producing fun projects,  but we also shared rides. Our mutual admiration of baseball sustained us through many daily commutes and traffic jams.

Fast-forward again to more recent times. We still work together on rare recording projects, Terry at the board and me behind the mic.

Beyond that, we continue to enjoy lifelong friendships with many of the personalities with whom we’ve worked over the years. We also still have baseball and its rich history to sustain us. And, boy, did we need it yesterday!

Terry invited me to join him on a Saturday trip to Baltimore. A former ballpark that burned to the ground on July 4, 1944, has risen from the ashes as a craft brewery.

How could I turn down combining two of my favorite things: baseball and beer? Plus, we would meet with a Baltimore-based author, David B. Stinson, who researched and wrote about these former ballpark treasures. A former client from our recording studio days, Jack Gilden, (who lives ten minutes from our destination), would join us.

Jack’s daughter came, too. What a patient trooper she was throughout the afternoon/evening! I mean, she witnessed four grown men (at least physically) getting giddy over sites of kids’ games from more than 100 years ago.

What could go wrong … except for a tanker truck spilling liquid oxygen all over I-83 just after 6 AM? Terry and I persevered through inching along for four miles. It only took us two hours, but we remained focused and determined.

We finally arrived at East 30th and Barclay in Baltimore around 2:15 PM. Just entering Peabody Heights Brewery, the site of hallowed baseball ground, made the major delay all worthwhile. Of course, the “Old Oriole Park” lager draft helped, too!

The brewery’s owner began a tour soon after our arrival. Did he talk about his beer and how the brewery got started? Nope. He enthusiastically shared the rich baseball history of Old Oriole Park, which graced the very site many, many years ago.

After the baseball discussion, which included Babe Ruth’s playing days on the site, the owner tossed the ball to his son for the behind-the-scenes brewery part of the tour.

That’s when David detoured us to a spot on the cement floor near the beer vats. That’s where 2nd base had been. He also informed us that where the owner had been talking to our tour group was left field.

Following one additional round from the taps, we eagerly poured outside for David to continue giving us perspective on the lay of the land. David showed us where the left field wall had been, where the mound had been, and where home plate had been (right on the curb on Barclay).

While imagining the Babe swinging for the fences from that curb, I had to take a few imaginary cuts of my own from the other batter’s box.

After we soaked in that atmosphere, we all bounded toward 29th Street. Here was the home of another Oriole Park (American League Park) and … the future New York Yankees. Confused yet?

We then strode down the hill a few more blocks toward the former site of Union Park. I took my batting practice cuts in the parking lot where home plate once graced the ground beneath. I also trotted toward 3rd base to take a few grounders.

As Jack stated, this is where Wee Willie Keeler’s 44-game hitting streak ended. John McGraw played here as did Wilbert Robinson.

I’d add photos, but David had already taken the best shots and showed us on his phone during our trifecta former ballpark tour. He’s also a heck of an author and was a guest speaker for the Harrisburg Senators Fan Club. I highly recommend David’s book.

During our walk back up the hill, David departed. The rest of our lineup decided on the Charles Village Pub, Towson, for dinner before heading home.

The original Charles Village Pub, one of Terry’s  favorite places for ribs, would have to wait for our next visit. After all, it’s near the former site of Memorial Stadium.

Proportionately Perfect

Just as we can be any size, shape or gender to enjoy playing baseball, baseball trips don’t need to be epic to be fun. If you like epic, please see my series of posts in “UBT 2013”. That was two baseball lunatics scouring the country across 2,500 miles to see ten professional baseball games in ten different cities in nine days. Fulfilling? Yes, but treks like that take mucho planning and effort to be successful. We did it, of course, just as we had several UBTs before.

This, on the other hand, is a different kind of baseball trip: four season ticket holders, four games in one city over three days. To borrow Mitch’s phrase to describe this trip, let’s call it “Ultimate Baseball Trip … Lite”.

Binghamton, NY, is a leisurely three-hour drive north on I-81. It’s even more leisurely when you aren’t the driver. Due to the generosity of my friends and our proximity to I-81 North, I received door-to-door service.

We begin Tuesday, August 2nd, at 11 AM. Ruth picks up Barb and Sam at Barb’s house in Susquehanna Township. They swing by to add me and we’re on our way.

Along the way, I learned that you can pack a lot of laughs into a three-hour ride. We break up the trip with a late lunch at a familiar Perkins near Wilkes-Barre. Before we know it, we’re parking on Court Street in front of M & D-R Nuts.

 

 

The Transition

With my left arm in that ridiculous compression sling, I decided to put down my bat and pick up a mic. Once healed, I could still play rec baseball, so I began to concentrate on trying to team my passion for baseball with — oh, I don’t know — broadcasting, perhaps?

My voice was maturing into a rich, relaxing delivery. Not terribly deep, but more easy-listening. It would stand out from the crowd.

I started a radio station in my family’s basement. My dad repaired record players and other electronics for fun, so I had a pair of turntables, cassette recorders and a mic.

Once I had enough nerve to tell my friends, they reacted as though they wanted to try it, too. They brought their own music and we played radio through a real Radio Shack AM transmitter.

We didn’t care that the signal traveled less than 60-feet. We had fun creating radio.

Between that, recording my own play-by-play baseball onto cassettes and listening to radio stations more intently than ever, I talked to my folks about contacting the local radio station with a letter and one of my tapes. I offered to clean and make coffee for the opportunity to learn.

The owner (also the GM, sales manager and locally well-known morning host) called me to arrange an after-school meeting. I received a tour (studios and offices in a modest colonial house), a quick audition in the production room, and an offer to learn on-the-job!

The family-owned AM day-timer (broadcasting dawn to dusk according to FCC regulations) was six miles from home. My parents reminded me that I would be sacrificing other activities. However, if I was willing to make the commitment and this is what I really wanted, they assured me that they would provide “taxi service” until I could drive.

The stars seemed to be aligning. I could now get paid to learn broadcasting at a unique radio station that could pay even more dividends for my career.

She’s a Beauty

The DH debate can lead us farther and farther away from what had attracted us to this beautiful game in the first place. All of us learned by watching.

In the beginning, we didn’t care about defensive positioning, different pitches or two-strike swings. We saw something special in that instant when bat meets ball.

That’s an elementary view of a game that offers so much more than the crack of the bat. Yet the DH leads us back to that simple time. One can get that thrill from any home run derby, video game or Sunday slow-pitch softball.

But, as we allow the deeper game to reel us in, we understand that baseball offers such incredibly rich knowledge. Tradition, yes, but I continually learn from this perfect sport. On any given day of any regular season, we can witness something that has never happened before during a professional baseball game … in 150 years!

Do we really need to “dumb it down” for MLB marketers to justify their existence? Is baseball’s demise worth stealing from the delicate balance of a lineup to satisfy a new generation that may or may not take notice?

Long ago, baseball magically fused into a three-out-per-inning, nine-inning-per-game, nine-player-per-team sport that builds on its own perfection. Each player must hit, field and run.

Early innings are just as important as later innings. Offense balances defense. Hitting balances pitching.

A team that’s behind never runs out of time. A team that’s ahead can never run out the clock.

Each team receives the same number of opportunities to win. So when we shake our heads because the bottom of our lineup is due to bat in the bottom of the 9th, we can thank that pure mathematical balance that only baseball provides to us.

I’ll never understand why the failure of weaker hitters (such as pitchers) should pose a problem in a sport where Hall of Famers fail 7 of every 10 times. No sport can expose team or individual weaknesses the way baseball can. And it’s precisely connected to the value of no free substitution.

Should a manager play his weaker-hitting shortstop with a slick glove or his offensive-minded SS who has less range or a weaker arm? Should a pitcher who’s dealing be lifted because we have a runner in scoring position in the 5th?

If you think about it, decisions like these are affected when a tenth player is added to the equation. The exception to no free substitution waters down all that the perfect nine-player sport represents.

To me, the DH is like putting a side car on a Lamborghini. It may seem convenient or even practical at times, but boy, what does it do to the overall value of what a Lamborghini represents?

 

DH Debate Continues

We began this debate in the last post, citing three quotes from those who are pro DH. Below, I’ll continue to refute their points.

4 – “Both leagues need to play by the same rules.”

Here’s something we can agree on. The current situation isn’t palatable for any of us. Especially when each league features an odd number of teams.

I’ll bet the pushers for inter-league play never saw this mess coming. The AL owners painted themselves into a greedy corner in January, 1973. At this point, MLB is stuck.

MLBPA will never relinquish the DH, (at least not without savvy bargaining agreement negotiation). That leaves MLB with the abomination we have now.

Would the MLBPA consider a 26th or even 27th active roster spot to get back to pure nine-player baseball across both leagues? That’s up to 60 more major league jobs (members).

Those additional roster spots could also alleviate any current pitching issues, such as one-inning or even one-batter relief staff. (See? I’m flexible with my traditional baseball values. Just not where the integrity of the game itself is at stake.)

5 -“The DH has been in effect for more than 40 years. It’s time.”

It’s time, all right. It’s time to stop the madness.

I could counter and say the pure game has been in effect for 150 years. I’ll take that nine-player baseball any day.

6 – “It doesn’t take a genius to double-switch.”

No one is saying you need to be sophisticated to manage or even to follow a manager’s moves. We’re just saying that a team needs to accept the penalty for substituting any player.

Guess what? That’s called “baseball”!

7 – “Look at the specialization in football.”

Football has become a product of television. Although I no longer watch it on any level, that has nothing to do with this debate.

Free substitution exists everywhere except in National League baseball (and select minor league games). Because of this, maybe … just maybe, the NL really offers something more for a sports fan. Something that no other game can offer.

We’ll pick up there in the next post.

I Vote for Nine-Player Baseball

What’s with the current ridiculous groundswell of support for the DH in both leagues? I guarantee that I can refute any point established by the “home run derby” crowd.

Here are the first three tired, old debate quotes we hear from the pro DH masses:

1 – “Pitchers can’t hit.”

Tell that to Zack Greinke, Madison Bumgarner and several others who take their professionalism, their craft and their team play seriously. These are conditioned athletes who used to be the best hitters in every league where they played.

When they get to pro ball, their bats are taken away until they reach AA. And then, they only get to swing the bat (or even bunt) if they play for NL affiliates and only against an opponent that’s an NL affiliate.

When they reach the majors, they’re expected to succeed against the top pitchers in the world. They’re set up to fail. I’m sorry, but that’s an organizational issue, not a reason to neuter the integrity of the game.

No player should be given a pass from hitting, fielding or running unless they’re replaced in the lineup. That goes for the one-dimensional DH, too.

2 – “Pitchers can get hurt while hitting or running the bases.”

So can position players, right? Isn’t that called “baseball”?

Isn’t it interesting that no pitcher ever gets hurt on the mound? Shall we wrap them in bubble wrap? (I borrowed that visual from a position player friend.) Or maybe just use a pitching machine. Problem solved.

3 – “Fans love offense.”

Okay, let them play home run derby 162 times a year. Is that what baseball fans want?

The first DH game in MLB history ended up 15-5. The Yankees and Red Sox tallied 28 hits. The combined DH’s went 1-9 with one RBI. Exciting, huh? Mel Stottlemyre and Luis Tiant could have gone 1-9.

I wish I had been old enough to savor the 1968 season. I’ll pay to sit on the edge of my seat at a 1-0 game where every pitch matters. Where each manager struggles with the decision to pinch hit for a hot starter. Where a bunt, every 90 feet and any defensive play could turn the game.

On the other hand, 15-5 where nine hitters follow nine hitters and relievers can be dispensed as from a vending machine with no roster consequence? Just sit back and wait for the bomb, like in football? Call that what you want, but it isn’t “baseball” to me.

Care to offer your opinion? I welcome your comments, pro and con. I may respectfully reply, but that’s how civil discussion works.

By the way, I’m just getting started. More to come in the next post.

Door Closes, Window Opens

Living near the school, I don’t have much time to think before arriving home following that first baseball practice of the season. I now realize that I need to confess to my mother, who is an RN, that my shoulders have felt weird all weekend.

Baseball activity exacerbated the situation, allowing me to experience new dimensions in pain. Just as I’d expected, no more baseball practice for me until we see the doctor.

I’ll spare you the gory details. The result? Cracked clavicle in my lead shoulder.

I wear a pressure sling for six weeks. Following that eternity, the doctor calmly tells my parents that we’ll need another couple of weeks in the sling. Ugh.

I couldn’t wait to ceremoniously burn that sling, and now I need to begin another countdown to freedom from it. The high school season is lost, but I recover enough to play teener ball with my friends.

I never recover enough to make an impression on the high school coach. I never hit well enough anyway.

My right shoulder is never treated. I still feel that sensation across my shoulders when lifting weighty items a certain way.

Now what? I absolutely love baseball. I love to play. I love its strategy.

It’s the perfectly balanced sport between team and individual performance. Its math adds up: three outs per inning, nine innings, 90 feet between perfectly squared bases. How can this part of my life become part of my future?

I listen to games on the radio. A nationally televised MLB game is a real treat when you only receive three network stations from your antenna.

I call the local radio station for advice on how to begin a career in broadcasting. Most of the rest, as they say, is history.

New Sensation

The first day of high school baseball practice is brisk. It feels good to throw a baseball again. My arm takes longer to loosen up. (Remember that there was a time when concentrating solely on one sport wasn’t the norm. I played freshman and JV basketball.)

After upperclassmen, I’m third in line at shortstop during infield practice. Glove work has always been second nature: short hops, backhands in the hole, over-the-head pops to short left. I make a clean first play and accurate, yet weak throw to 1st.

As a freshman, I’m one of the last to take batting practice. As soon as I begin to take warm-up swings and stretch a bat behind my neck, I feel a searing sensation from shoulder-to-shoulder.

“Gotta knock out the cobwebs,” I think.With every swing at a phantom pitch, the pain returns.

Before I and a handful of others take our BP cuts, early spring darkness envelops the field. This would be a blessing for me.

From the Beginning

The wrestling coach pairs a toned 16-year-old against a scrawny 14-year-old whose only thought is to survive. Baseball practice finally starts next week following a long, cold winter (and several weeks of wrestling in gym class).

The thought arises, “Just go down. Give the 16-year-old a handshake and the coach satisfaction.” But then, I hear my friends urging me to compete.

They understand how I feel about wrestling. Compared to baseball … well, there is no comparison in my mind. Baseball features a beautiful outdoor landscape while wrestling takes place in a drafty gym on funky smelling mats. Baseball demonstrates agility; wrestling, brawn.

Competing isn’t an option from this position. However, I continue to hear encouragement and decide that I won’t be pinned.

A three-hour baseball game passes by in an instant for me, but this two-minute wrestling period lasts an eternity. I will not allow my shoulders to give in.

Finally, the whistle blows. I didn’t get pinned. I actually survived.

Now I can focus on a new beginning in the fresh air of baseball season. I think.