With baseball taking center stage in American sports until college football or the NFL start, I have something to admit. I’ve doing my best to hide it since I’ve started blogging (albeit unsuccessfully), but the truth has to come out. I don’t know much about baseball.
It’s not necessarily for lack of interest either. Baseball is one of the most intriguing sports out there. Like soccer on the world level, it has an actual culture that is integrated into our society. There are so many players (especially when you include the minor leagues), positions and games that you can only scratch the surface with conversation and analysis. I’ve had a lot of good times at baseball games. Baseball is even connected with both two seasons: Summer being the relaxing day at the ball park and Fall the legend-making finale in the World Series. Needless to say, baseball is quite different than any other American sports. But I still haven’t been able to care.
It started when I was 5 or 6 years old.
Like many youth interested in sports, Tee Ball was the place to start as basketball was too challenging, football too dangerous and soccer too boring. I was on “Tony’s Tigers” and we’d just gotten our uniforms about a week before the first game. I’ll never forget what they looked like, as I kept them in my dresser drawer for far too long: yellow shirts and caps with red writing. We practiced at my elementary school a few blocks away and I even convinced my parents to let me ride my bike to practice one day (they followed me in the car, but it felt like complete, William Wallace-style freedom). As a chubby and awkward youth I had zero athletic skills and even worse coordination. My motor skills were late in developing and my brain was significantly ahead of my over-sized hands. But in tee ball my potential was quite limited. I couldn’t really play the field or run the bases with out tripping over my feet. I could hit the ball Ruthian distances when I made contact but struck out 2/3 of the time. You read that right, struck out in tee ball 67% of the time. Yes tee ball, where the ball remains unmoving on a tee for the batter to strike. I was like a miniature Pedro Cerrano, sans Jobu.
Despite all my limitations, I kept at it because I enjoyed being on a team and running around. I also had a Father that taught me never to give up on something you want and instilled a strong work ethic in me even at a young age. But mostly the running around. That all changed the week of our first game. I was playing pitcher, not because of my awful fielding skills but because we were rotating in practice. The batter steps to the plate and hits a line drive right at me. I was ready for the moment, holding my glove up and everything. But my blasted underdeveloped motor skills let me down again as the ball struck me directly on the forehead, with my glove arriving milliseconds later and dropping me to the ground. As if that wasn’t enough, I immediately heard all the players, coaches and parents laughing hysterically, including my own family. Embarrassed to tears, I jumped on my bike and rode home as fast as I could. As I sat in the front yard waiting for my parents to get home, I swore off baseball forever.
To be fair to my teammates, coaches and parents the reason for their laughter was probably justified. According to eyewitness accounts, when the ball struck me I didn’t fall immediately. Apparently I spun around once, lifted my leg and fell straight back “just like Wile E. Coyote” as my Mom always recalls, usually while snickering. I guess I’ve always had a flair for theatrics, even when I don’t intend to. That vow is the main reason I never embraced baseball. It appears to me that baseball is something you must pick up in your youth like chicken pox or a smoking habit and my tee ball experience put the kybosh on my desire to learn the game.
At it’s core, baseball is just as much a male right of passage as it is a sport. It’s something passed down generation to generation with moderately ritualistic qualities. Not only does the child play catch in the backyard at a young age with a father figure or older sibling, they are sent off to another man who will continue their education and perfect their skills. You could technically say that about any other sport (and it still probably applies), but baseball is so traditional that it stands out among American sports. In what other sport do they fervently support age-old superstitions at the professional level like not mentioning a no-hitter. Not only is it reinforced by players but broadcasters, managers and fans get into the act too. Think about it, every game at almost any stadium observes the ceremonial 7th inning stretch and usually sings the same song. (Tangent: this is a major reason soccer will never be big here, we already have a tribal game).
There were a few opportunities for revival later in life: an enjoyable stint of Pickle and Over the Line prompted by “The Sandlot”, a brief fascination with the College World Series and an attempt to pick a favorite team in college that culminated with the selection of the Detroit Tigers in 2001 (I’ve got a thing for underdogs). Sadly nothing ever stuck.
So, we come to the present. I think the window for baseball in my life has passed, unless I have kids that want to play the game. My Dad set a great example of getting into sports when your child becomes interested in them, which I think I can handle. You know that whole “have more than a passing interest in your child’s favorite things” school of parenting. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I will have to root for the Dodgers, if I root for anyone at all. Like every kid that grew up in LA, I have many fond memories of Gibson’s HR in the ’88 series (my first televised sports memory), so it’s not a bad place to start.
But, I remain optimistic. Now that Pyle of List gives me a good reason to keep an eye on baseball, at least until football starts up, maybe it’ll stick this time. I’m going to make a concerted effort to catch a Dodgers game this year, and hopefully head back to my hometown to see the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes in action. Hopefully I’ll catch baseball fever… and nothing else.