Friday, June 04, 2004


With a D’Backs-Dodgers contest on in the background and my thoughts naturally turning to baseball, I thought I’d chat for a while about the game.
I grew up loving every aspect of baseball. I was a card-collecting, catch-playing, game-watching fanatic. I’d have All-Star game at-bats in my head, while tossing rocks in the air and hitting them with a battered aluminum bat. I knew stats so minute they barely existed. Never artistic, I tried my hand at water-colors and sketching players, with little sucess (Roger Clemens unfortunately and unintentionally looked a lot like Kirby Puckett). I had the T-shirt of every World Series winner, stretching over nearly a decade.
The best, though, was winning the Little League championship. Eleven years old and that moment will always stack up among my best. I never made an All-Star team, and by the time I was 13, playing on a big field, my skills didn’t stack up so well. I was a runt, basically, and my eyesight started going right about the same time the other kids started throwing curveballs. I couldn’t hit, just field.
I quit playing at 15 and worked two summers scorekeeping and umpiring. My last game was behind the plate at the city championship, when I decided I hated the parents who took the game more seriously than their sons, who took the loss hard but still loved having played the game.
I was a Dodgers fan from the time I knew baseball. My grandma loved Mickey Hatcher and Tommy Lasorda. We traded cards and the grandfolks took me to Dodger Stadium for birthdays. I devoured books about the Dodgers, memorized their history from a videotape. In college I watched Stand By Me on video, taped from the television, and jumped up - goose-bumped and near tears - when one of the commercials had Orel Hershiser proclaiming he was going to Disneyland. Kirk Gibson’s heroic, mythical homerun still gives me the chills.
That 1988 series was the best, but 1995’s divsion title and 1996’s wild card still fired me up. I was amazed at the string of rookies to win the league’s top prize - Karros, Piazza, Mondesi, Nomo and Hollandsworth. I’ve seen them all play. I spent my 18th birthday at Dodger Stadium, on the downswing from a fanatic to a fan, but still thrilled to be at Chavez Ravine.
Like any teenager who doesn’t play anymore, baseball started meaning less and less to me. Denny’s, coffee and Letty Hanna mattered more. Calculus, English and newspaper classes took more time. We camped in the woods, drinking cheap beer.
For years I’d catch the Series, maybe. I saw McGwire’s 62nd on TV, but I stopped caring for the Dodgers. I don’t think I even noticed how they changed. But a bit of research shows that in just over three months, everything I’d come to hate about baseball had torn apart the only team I’d ever loved.
The O’Malley family sold the team to Fox Entertainment Group, aka News Corp. on March 19, 1998. That was travesty enough, and I didn’t then know anything about Rupert Murdock. The Piazza trade followed in May. And in June, Bill Russell - infielder extraordinaire and the man who was Lassorda’s heir, just the third manager since 1954 - was fired.
I didn’t revolt; I just stopped giving a damn. The strike in 1994 didn’t lose me; growing up did.
The Diamondbacks started in 1998. I was thrilled when Major League Baseball announced the franchise, but I was more or less indifferent when they started. It was cool, I suppose, to have a home team, but expansion clubs always suck and I wasn’t too impressed with the purple-turquoise combination. I followed the team a bit when they signed Randy Johnson (who along with Tony Gwynn was one of the few players I could still root for, no matter what). Then the 2001 season took off and I went with it. The playoff run was stunning. The Series had every single element necessary for greatness. I think I missed watching just a single inning.
Leaping from my chair after Gonzo’s limp single brought a week of anxiety to an amazing close, I felt practically the same thing I did as an 11-year-old shortstop jumping on teammates after we won the city. We won. WE. WON!
Maybe it was simply victory that relaunched my love for the game. Maybe I just had to have a reason to care again.
Paul LoDuca just squeaked a homer into the left-field bullpen off Casey Fossum to take a 4-2 lead and I gritted my teeth. Because this is going to be a long year. Because we’re on a three-game winning streak. Because I care.
Televised baseball and box scores are one thing. All-Star Game voting and webgems are one thing. Winning streaks and minor league call ups are one thing.
But the real baseball is walking into the park, heading straight across the concourse to get that first glimpse of the field. The real baseball captures you - sends your mind back in time. The real baseball surrounds you with sights, sounds and memories of everything about the game that’s ever made you smile, or wince. The real baseball is a game, not a sport, or a business.
The real baseball, strangely enough, is Field of Dreams. It’s The Rookie and Major League. It’s a pissed-off James Earl Jones calming down to announce “The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball.” It’s a Cinderella story and yeah, even Randy Newman and Wesley Snipes get to play.
Two years ago on a road trip I was lucky enough to catch games in Anaheim and Denver. I cheered with friends and spit sunflower seed shells. In Denver we sat in the first row out in the left-field corner. You know the spot, where all the foul balls go. We knew that, but no balls ever came near. So I heckled a bit. I couldn’t tell you who won the games, but I want to go back to both parks. Coors Field is as friendly as baseball’s past and Edison, fittingly, is filled with pure energy.
I saw a D’Backs game last month - inside the BOB, with the air-conditioning vents overhead only slightly obscuring the sounds of the ballpark. They nearly got shut out by the Expos, managing only a weak sacrifice fly and stranding the bases loaded in one inning. But I walked in and paid homage to the World Series trophy. I took off my cap and placed it over my heart, staring at Brenley’s lineup card, Randy’s uniform and crouching down, marveled at Gonzo’s bat and the game ball that he hit just far enough, sending Jay Bell home. I actually teared up, and I left the ballpark happy.
I went to the Sidewinders Monday, taking in the cool desert night and Sonoran sunset as much as the game. But in a minor league game, rooting for a team that’s sent all its stars 100 miles north to the bigs, I’ll be damned if I wasn’t standing for the last half inning, cursing the third base umpire who cost us the tying run and nearly holding my breath as a weak grounder ended a bases-loaded threat.
That’s baseball.
I may get to see a game at Wrigley next week. And the BOB is just up the road. My grandma died in March, but I bet I can talk my grandpa into a game. And I want to see the new San Diego park soon. And San Francisco and Denver and Anaheim and Seattle. And I can’t wait to get back to Dodger Stadium.

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