Wednesday, June 18, 2008

On Baseball - and thinking

Baseball is...

Well, it's magnificent, really.

It's a game I grew up playing (not very well because my eyesight was TERRIBLE) in Camillus NY, in a league where we had different color hats. No logos, just hats.

Everyone in my neighborhood played on teams, and we didn't divvy them up by age. Twelve year olds pitched to seven year olds. Which is tougher than it sounds.

We played down behind the Sylvania Electric building, on an uneven field our fathers got together to mow (and occasionally plow the rocks out of). Our backstop was logs, inserted more or less straight up in the ground, with chicken wire draped between them.

The field was on the flat part of a hill, and I still recall my father driving the entire team down the hill on his Maverick (and later, Gremlin). The entire team.

Um, yeah, a little dangerous.

Then after each game we'd take a long drive up, up into the hills to the Model T Market, where they sold Pennsylvania Dutch brand birch beer in cold cans, and then cruise down the hill with the motor off to save on gas.

We'd play catch in the front yard and have ballgames in Al Lynch's backyard (which had the only flat stretch for ten blocks - Syracuse had BIG hills). We'd collect baseball cards - hundreds upon hundreds of cards - and put the duplicates in our bike wheels.

We'd watch the games on television - I distinctly remember stringing together power cords so we could watch Johnny Bench and the Reds out in our backyard tent.

And I remember my Dad driving half the team to Cooperstown. The Baseball Hall of Fame. Heaven. (We got our pictures taken and published in the Maryknoll magazine - still have a copy, actually. Though what the Maryknoll Fathers had to do with the Hall of Fame I'm still not clear on).

We'd occasionally go to Syracuse Chiefs games out at the old and rickety P&C Park (named for a grocery chain) and watch the fireworks afterwards. We even went on July 4th one time and I remember they had spinners and pictures outlined in fireworks on the outfield walls.

This was baseball to me.

A grand and glorious game, where failure to shift left could prove disastrous, where you remembered who could hit your pitcher's curveball and who couldn't, where the placement of lefties in the order could spell victory or defeat.

Watching my young soon-to-be-nephew's team play, is both charming and annoying. annoying, mainly because they are getting a little too old to be playing just hit and run. They don't think, which is pretty easy to do in the heat of the game, I guess.

You field differently if there is only one out, or two. You field differently if there are men on base and no outs, or no one on and one out. You don't always throw to first base, in other words.

You have to know whether to bunt up third or up first (again, depending upon whether you are sacrificing to move a runner and what base he's on) or hit left of center or to right field.

If you are on base, and someone hits a pop fly, depending upon where it is and who's going after it, you either prepare to run or stay on base. And that depends a lot on what base you are standing on, if your team is losing or winning...

Baseball, my father drilled into us, is a thinking man's game.

Sure. Now, I know where the throw's going - or supposed to go - the minute the ball is hit. But surprisingly, not only do kids not know these things but adults. I played in the Ad League in Buffalo, and you wouldn't believe the goofball decisions some people made - not because they were stupid but because they treated the game as simply hitting the ball and running.

That isn't it. Not by a long shot.

I think the beauty of baseball is that, given you understand the rules and logic behind the game, it's fairly easy to pick up on a lot of the game just by watching for awhile. If there are runners on first and second and only one out, and the ball is hit toward third, you aren't gonna see too many throws to first.

Baseball rewards thinkers. A team that plays to the top of their game will beat a "better" team eight times out of ten.

That said, you still have to hit a tiny sphere coming at you at 90 mph with a thin bat while the crowd yells, then run ninety feet while the fielder has to run to the ball, grab it and throw it without error to the same base.

Seeing how close the runner and the ball usually arrive, I am amazed at the perfection of the field. Think of it. If the runner only had to go, say, eighty feet, he'd beat the throw nearly all the time. If 100 feet, the throw would beat him.

Same with the pitching distance. Shorten it, and the batter couldn't react in time and would have to resort to guessing where the pitch would be. Lengthen it, and more batters would hit more often.

And the fields are similar, yet have their own differences and charms. Not the stadiums, the fields. Playing at Wrigley is a lot different than playing at Yankee Stdium or Fenway or Tiger Stadium.

In what other sport do they change the dimensions of the fields from stadium to stadium?
Can't think of one.

Grab a hot dog and a beer - they're better at the ballpark.

So. Baseball is...

Just a magnificent way to spend an afternoon.