Call me a dinosaur, a romantic, a kid at heart or an inveterate dreamer, but I can’t help getting excited when the winter sports finally give way to (or at least make room for) talk of pitching matchups and pennant races. Baseball has changed over the years, but it is still the single game that Americans can claim, without fear of contradiction, as their own. The game is to sports what jazz is to music. Both were born here. Both have spread generously to other lands and have been embraced by other cultures. Both contain in their histories the dynamic story of America’s development as a nation.
I began collecting baseball cards at the age of four (thereby learning to read at a rudimentary level so I could correctly associate the players with their teams). Almost immediately, I developed an affinity for Jackie Robinson’s Brooklyn Dodgers, who for those early years of my youth, broke my heart every fall by failing, usually by inches (figuratively speaking), to win the big prize. These were baseball’s true glory years.
And, with all three New York teams possessed of the most exciting and talented players (apart from Ted Williams and Stan Musial, who were in a class of their own in Boston and St. Louis, respectively), the World Series always featured one, and usually two, of the three teams. The big argument in those days among my young friends was who the best center fielder in the game was. Strong cases could be made for all three: the Yanks’ Mickey Mantle, the Dodgers’ Duke Snider and the Giants’ Willie Mays. (All three were subsequently elected to the Hall of Fame.)
As a youngster, I quickly came to realize (after only two years of little league ball) that I could not hit, catch or throw well enough to avoid tremendous humiliation whenever I took the field, which for a young teen is not a pleasant prospect, especially if you are also beset with a severe case of acne and an inability to speak intelligibly to members of the opposite sex. Undeterred, I took my love for the game inside, learning as much as I could about the many facets of the sport that escape the casual fan.
Why, for instance, can certain pitchers handle certain hitters, while others can’t? In what situations will a good batter punch the ball to the opposite field instead of swinging for the fences? What is a manager likely to be planning with a two-run lead in the bottom of the seventh? All these and countless other stratagems and nuances became my homework, and I studied it all by listening to the likes of Vin Scully, Red Barber, Mel Allen and Lindsey Nelson.
I also studied the box scores and learned how to compute batting averages and ERAs and “magic numbers” (number of wins needed to clinch a pennant), quickly developing thereby a facility with numbers (these being the days before computers, or even hand held calculators).
My love for reading started with baseball, because I soon learned that it was fun to read what the sports writers wrote about the games I’d listened to on the radio the night before. And so, by reading newspaper reports by Dick Young, Leonard Koppett, Jimmy Cannon and Roger Kahn, I came to appreciate the ways in which writing could capture and even enhance the memory of a game, a single play, a fleeting moment.
And, as I studied the game and its history, I became more aware of the history of my country, thereby gaining a more mature sense of patriotism, one that reveres the potential for the country’s greatness that its Constitution provides, while also recognizing the realities of the less noble pursuits and accomplishments that its politics often promote.
My love of reading soon led me to experiment with my own writing skills, at first merely describing the things I observed, later adding the emotions I felt, and, ultimately, crafting essays that sought to express an idea I formed. Viewed in hindsight, I can easily see the child who was the father of the man I’ve become – lawyer, teacher, writer – and it all began with baseball.
And now, as yet another spring arrives and another season begins, I am in touch with those joyful days of youth. The start of a new baseball season and the advent of spring seem to be almost one and the same experience, so joined are they at the hip.
Both herald a sense of hope. For the teams, a new race for a pennant begins, with optimistic visions of improved performance from returning players and boosts of enthusiasm from newly acquired teammates. For the rest of us, spring creates a sense of renewal and a hope that the future will be better than the past.
But the baseball season is long (six month and 162 games), and over the course of that span of time, the realities of life all too often take hold. Injuries occur to key players; slumps derail expectations; mid-season trades don’t lead to improvement; players lose the confidence of their managers; managers lose the respect of their players.
In the end, many hopes are dashed, and only one team remains standing when the chill of autumn takes hold and the headlines and lead stories turn to the game played with an oval-shaped ball by over-sized men wearing all manner of padding and helmets.
Such is life. It dawns with hope and expectations of great joy and eternal happiness, only to be buffeted by cruel fates and human imperfections. And each opportunity for renewal or rediscovery (the new diet, the commitment to exercise, the promise to be faithful, the resolution to break a bad habit) soon gets lost in the dog days of summer and the frosty mornings of fall.
But spring is when hopes revive and when everything is once again possible. The Dodgers have a great team this year. Mannymania will surely bring a World Series title.
But just to feel that feeling again is enough to recall that it’s good to be alive.