Got a beat-up glove, a home-made bat
And a brand new pair of shoes
You know I think it’s time to give this game a ride
Just to hit the ball, and touch ’em all
A moment in the sun
It’s a-gone and you can tell that one good-bye
On Nov. 11th of this year we will celebrate the 39th anniversary of the introduction of the quite fictional but nonetheless very real Chico Escuela into both our national sports and comedy lexicons. It was on that night that Garrett Morris first introduced the Dominican “immortal” former Cubs and Mets player to late night television audiences on Saturday Night Live. This should be about ten days after the conclusion of the World Series and hopefully immediately after a parade down the Canyon of Heroes for the New York Yankees. Of course at this point the cooperation of the Houston Astros and whoever is the National League representative in the festivities will be required. The Minnesota Twins and the Cleveland Indians have already cooperated. The Indians of course were last year’s representatives for the American League and after coughing up a three games to one lead against the Chicago Cubs and a lead in the ninth inning as well, went on to lose in ten innings. With the game tied 6-6, 17 minutes of rain kept the game from proceeding into what would become the conclusive tenth inning and in the process, at least according to Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo, washed away the Curse of the Goat for the Cubbies. The Colavito curse, placed upon the Indians in 1960 for the disastrous trade of slugger Rocky Colavito for Harvey Kuenn, a batting title winner with a lifetime .303 average who would also go on to be the last out in two of Sandy Koufax’s four no hitters, would remain intact for now. The Cubs ended their skid at 108 years, their last previous championship being in 1908. The Indians have been on the hook for another one since 1948, a considerably shorter but still a considerably too long wait for some of the most faithful of baseball fans. A berry berry long time indeed for both franchises. It is a tragedy of sorts but to my mind the Yankees having to wait a minute longer since 2009 would be a bigger blow to the entire world of sports. I do think the curse will turn relatively soon for the tribe as they have an extremely talented team and possibly the best manager in all of baseball. In fact one of the greatest mysteries of the modern game is how Terry Francona managed to lose that 7th game last year after having so thoroughly out managed Joe Maddon of the Cubs. The baseball gods work in mysterious ways indeed.
Football may generate the biggest ratings but baseball is the most sacramental of American sports. Granted, to the naked eye it is not as explosive as football. But it is not without its share of drama and suspense, as anyone who has sat through the completion of a perfect game can attest to.
Many men and more than a few women remember in great detail their first time in a major league park. It is a deeply ingrained and unique rite of passage which ties parents and children together in a manner defying my meager attempts to articulate it. The 1989 film Field of Dreams is perhaps the best cinematic expression of the generational legacy of the game. The innocence of Ray Kinsella’s catch with his long deceased dad at the end is a perfect moment of mutual forgiveness and resolution.
The very first major league game I ever attended was a NY Mets game. I had been, and remain to this day a true blue Yankee fan but at 8 years old a big time baseball game was a big time baseball game no matter what the uniform and or if the home team would eventually finish 60 or so games out of first place. My father took me to the Polo Grounds which had been the home park for the New York Giants who had moved to another city by a bay not named Flushing or Hudson after the 1957 season. I was three years old when that happened and from what I have been told the saddest part of this move for most New Yorkers was that they took Willie Mays with them. He would return of course towards the end of his career to play not in upper Manhattan but in Queens near the aforementioned Flushing Bay.
One of the first things I remember is coming through the tunnel and into the grandstand area and getting that first view of the field and the scoreboard. It seemed that I had never seen grass so green and the audaciousness of the scoreboard and all the advertisements in bright colors and ridiculously high lettering was nothing short of awe inspiring. It wasn’t until years later that I comprehended just how significant an effect such things can have on our national psyche. Cigarette ads promised “quality” and you could wash them down with a fat Rheingold beer and if your breath needed a once over after all that then certainly a swig of Listerine would do the trick.
But the thing I remember most from that first deep breath of baseball wonder was what or rather who I saw as I glanced down along the first base line. There, a somewhat “more mature” fellow in a Braves uniform and a somewhat distended belly was chatting with a man with a microphone in his hand. The next thing I knew I was grabbing my father’s pants leg and exclaiming at the top of my tiny lungs ‘Dad. It’s Warren Spahn. Warren Spahn!” Now for those of you who don’t know, Warren Spahn was the winningest left handed pitcher in major league history. 363 wins to be exact. He also holds the record for most home runs (35) lifetime by a pitcher in National League history. He is a Hall of Famer but at that point in time he was winding down his exceptional 21 year major league career. Well actually he played a few more years. In fact, a couple of years later he played for the Mets after being traded and before finally finishing up with the San Francisco Giants. Ironically his stint with the Mets brought him back together with his first major league manager, Casey Stengel who, in 1942, shipped him back to the minors for refusing to throw at Pee Wee Reese in an exhibition game against the Dodgers. Stengel himself was fired later that year. Spahn once said of his time with the ‘Ol Perfesser that “I’m probably the only guy who played for Casey before and after he was a genius.”
After that initial excitement my father led me to our seats which were sort of mid-level along the first base line and he bought us a scorecard and showed me how to keep score. My father was not an extremely outgoing sort of man although he never struck me as being a mean sort and had the occasional bout of humor. But we shared a love of baseball and in such moments I saw more of him and the joy he was surely capable of than at any other times in our relationship. I will never forget the excitement in his manner as he went over the fine touches of keeping an accurate scorecard. To top it all off the hapless, helpless Mets, of whom, Stengel once said, at least according to the late New York journalist Jimmy Breslin “can’t anybody here play this game?”, actually won that day. I forget the score but it hardly matters. It seems they were on the way to losing and somehow eked it out just when all hope seemed lost. It was for me at least as close to a perfect day as one can have for an 8 year old boy even if he did not get to see his beloved Yankees and hero Mickey Mantle. I even caught a glimpse of the ‘Ol Perfesser. I did not have a Rheingold, I left that to my dad, but I did have a hot dog.
A lot has happened to the game since then. The Mets eventually got their own field and then another one. The Polo Grounds were torn down. Yankee Stadium was renovated causing them to play for two seasons at Shea Stadium, the home of their crosstown rivals, the Mets. When it reopened it looked nothing like the Yankee Stadium I remembered. Later still it was torn down and a new one went up right across the street which from the inside greatly resembles the old stadium in its renovated form and from the outside does not look like the original old stadium but has sort of approximated its style. Remnants of the old famous facade now adorn the entrance to the new Macomb’s Dam Park across the street where the original stadium once stood.
Pitchers don’t have to hit anymore in the American League. Now we have something called the Designated Hitter, the introduction of which purists have argued about since its inception in 1973 and continues to be the object of abject disagreement over bar stools all across the country. The Cy Young Award is now handed out to pitchers from both the American and National leagues. It is no longer an exclusively outdoor game. The pitching mound has been lowered. Babe Ruth’s once seemingly untouchable record of 714 lifetime home runs has now been touched and passed by two other players. His single season record of 60 home runs has also been passed first by another Yankee, Roger Maris, as well as by four others two of whom have passed him more than once, placing him in eighth place as of this writing with the new record a full thirteen homers beyond at 73. The purists would remind you that the Babe played in only 154 games a season and today’s players play in 162. The ballparks are generally not as cavernous. Ballplayers no longer have to take off season jobs as car salesmen. Popcorn, peanuts and crackerjacks are no longer the only dietary staples at the game. Now you can get sushi and pizza.
The Braves moved from Milwaukee to Atlanta and now a team called the Brewers play in Milwaukee, in a different stadium. Two teams were added in Canada and then one was taken away. Washington DC, which had the notoriously worst team in all of baseball (until the early Mets of course) lost their team to Minnesota but now have one back again. This one is actually pretty good. The Cubs still play at Wrigley but now it has lights and night games. Comisky is gone. But Fenway persists even beyond the Ruthian curse which is now kaput. The Dodgers are in LA, and now compete with the Angels for market share; The Athletics bounced from Philly to Kansas City to Oakland and really who knows where they may land up next. Kansas City now has the Royals, and the game is being played in more markets than ever. There are teams in Texas, Miami, Seattle, Toronto, San Diego, Colorado, Tampa Bay and Arizona. There is instant replay. There is talk of a pitch clock to speed up the game. Baseball cards no longer carry bubble gum and I doubt that kids still play games to win each other’s cards for their collections. But there are still curses to be broken and likely some to still be made. There is inter league play. Who’d a thunk it?!!!
But the game persists. Fathers and sons and even moms and daughters and every variety in between still share a catch and pee wee and little league games still fill the local parks from spring until early fall just in time for the Fall Classic and if you don’t know what that is, why are you even reading this? Our heroes still are imperfect. Mickey drank too much but he hit homers with hangovers. Today the uniforms are different but the imperfections are essentially the same. We are united in our humanity and divided over its nuances. Like all of us the game is ultimately either begrudging or forgiving. Should Pete Rose be in the Hall of Fame? What about Barry Bonds and Roger Clemons? And each spring we renew our commitment to forgive or not, but we never forget. Because the essence of baseball is the memories, the pleasant, complicated, enduring, debatable, awe inspiring, humorous, maddening memories, passed down from father to son to grandson and from bar stool to bar stool. Baseball more than anything unites us as a family in a dialog more necessary to the survival of our national soul than any discussion of the budget or of who controls the legislative or executives branches because to get there we must go through the “here” of who we are.
George Carlin once said that football was about our aggressive militaristic side. It is essentially about attacking and blitzing and taking territory. Baseball is, in the end, just about going home, even if you have to steal a few bases to get there. Hey, nobody’s perfect. Unless of course they knock down 27 in a row without anyone reaching base.
I know that we, as a nation, are better than the imperfections bubbling on our surface in these confounding times. I know this because sometime later today a man in a black suit and a face mask is going to shout “play ball” and we will collectively shout too, at that man in the face mask and black suit, at each other, at the players and at ourselves and when it is over win or lose somehow we will all feel better about ourselves and each other because for at least awhile we will have all gone home. Beisbol been berry berry good to me too Mr. Escuela. Playball!