I have the 1971 All-Star game on the telly this afternoon, sat down at the laptop with my Strat-o-Matic 1973 cards, and I was immediately trapped in a time warp. The years started melting away...2004- the Boston Red Sox win their first World Series in 86 years...2001- Barry Bonds hits 73 home runs and the Seattle Mariners win 116 games...1998- McGwire and Sosa... the years are flying by faster now, and so are the players...1995- Cleveland Indians in the World Series...1980- will George Brett hit .400?.... The time machine is slowing down now- 1979, 1977, 1975...
1971. The year before the Oakland A's three-year run as the champions of the world began. On this particular day a 58-year-old gentleman is sitting in the grandstand, his 28-year-old son beside him, and his 5 and 3-year-old grandsons along as well. It was batting helmet day, or t-shirt day, or some such promotion; the batting helmet would have shattered with one of Vida Blue's slowest pitches, but that didn't matter to the five-year-old; all he cared about was that he was there, at the ballpark, eating peanuts from a giant bag and dropping the shells gleefully on the concrete. Were we allowed to do that? he wondered. But it didn't matter- his grandpa was doing it, his father was doing it, so he did it too. The names of the players were magical- Blue Moon Odom, Catfish Hunter, Rollie Fingers. He laughed every time he saw Rollie's handlebar moustache. The field looked enormous and the players looked small from the nosebleed seats. The green and yellow uniforms may look hideous to those looking back from a vantage point of forty-three years, but to that five-year-old, they were a fashion statement. He wore his souvenir helmet and t-shirt with pride.
Fast forward four years. In 1975 our protagonist was now nine years old and living in Ohio, as far away from the Oakland A's as they were from their next appearance in the World Series. The Milwaukee Brewers were in town, and that meant a chance to see Hank Aaron, the newly crowned home run king. This nine-year-old boy thought it would be a simple thing to walk onto the field, present Mr. Aaron with a paper and pencil and get him to sign. Get used to disappointment, kid. Whether Hank Aaron hit a home run that day or not is a fact lost to the sands of time, but to the nine year old, it didn't matter; he was there.
Have you guessed? That boy was me. I have been to many ballgames in the 39 years since I ground those peanut shells into the concrete in Oakland. I've lived through great Oakland teams, mediocre Detroit teams, and great Cleveland teams (although I had to swim through a lot of mediocrity to get there). Classic moments- George Brett's .390, my brother waking me up to tell me that Len Barker had pitched a perfect game, Jack Morris pitching a no-hitter in 1984, and the Detroit Tigers winning it all that year. And calling the action, whether he did so in real-life or not, is the late, great Ernie Harwell, a man who personified class, a man who took time out of his day to write a letter to a friend simply because I wrote to him and asked.
I am a baseball fan. I have seen a lot of teams and a whole lot of players pass through real-life on the way to my memories, some for a cup of coffee, some for a full-course meal plus seconds. For every Joe Charboneau there's a George Brett; for every Marvin Freeman there's a Clayton Kershaw. Well, maybe for every 100 Marvin Freemans :) There are good players and bad players, good times and bad times. When the players went on strike in 1981 I was heartbroken, but I stayed a fan, playing Strat-O-Matic and APBA baseball day after day, and several times on Saturdays. When the players went on strike in 1994 I wanted to turn away from the game completely. Then the Indians had to go and play their way into the Wold Series in 1995. Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.
And you want to tell me Barry Bonds brought the game to the brink of ruin? I think the game has been on the brink of ruin for the past... well.... how many years has professional baseball been around? Let's say 143 years, since the National Association in 1871. The baseball cranks of the nineteenth century lived through the National Association, the American Association, the Union Association, the Player's League; they saw the National League expand to twelve teams and shrink to eight; they saw the arrival of the rebel Western League as it morphed into the American League and challenged the Senior Circuit for the best players. The twentieth-century fan saw some of the best players in the game denied admission to the dance because of their heritage, the defiling of the sacrosanct World Series in 1919, the blossoming of a portly pitcher and slugger from Baltimore, Maryland whom veterans like Tyrus Raymond Cobb looked upon with disdain. "He has ruined the sport!" he cried, when in fact he helped to save it. The ball has been juiced more times than a mother's breast and spat on more times than a bartender's spittoon; the game has been proclaimed dead more times than Paul McCartney, yet it staggers on and even thrives.
I know, it's only baseball, but I like it.
The players haven't ruined the game. They can't. If a steroid-influenced ballplayer hit a juiced ball into the upper deck and no one was there to hear it, would it still leave an asterisk? The players may play the game, but the fans make it live. If the fans hadn't taken a shine to Joltin' Joe DiMaggio, then a 56-game hitting streak would mean about as much as a three-dollar bill. Babe Ruth? Without a legend behind him people would just as likely remember Grover Cleveland's daughter more. When Kirby Puckett died, his legal troubles were relegated to a sentence or two, because he was so well liked. When Marge Schott died, her racism was still a story, because she wasn't well liked.
The game will live because of Dan Okrent. The game will live because of Topps. The game will live because of Ethan Allen and Richard Seitz, because of Hal Richman and Pete Ventura, because of men like Ernie Harwell and Red Barber, because whenever three or more children get together the candy wrapper can still be first base, the bookbag can still be second, the leaves can still be third and the tree stump can still be home. Mom may have been more powerful than Kenesaw Mountain Landis, but there was always tomorrow, always one more chance to be Gorman Thomas or Albert Pujols or Ken Griffey Jr or Hank Aaron.
If you love it, they will come.