Wednesday, October 20, 2004

 

Baseball

I went to my first professional baseball game when I was about three years old. My dad - a young (immature) dad who was only 20 when I was born - would take me to see the Indians* when he would go with his friends. It was never a big deal or a family outing. We would go on the spur of the moment to a night game at Old Cleveland Municipal Stadium and sit in the bleachers with a transistor radio (a necessity, since Municipal Stadium was so big that it was really hard to see what was happening with the game all the way from the bleacher seats). This was the 1970's, and the Indians were horrible. Usually only a few thousand people showed up to these games, and the stadium that seated 80,000 would be pretty much empty. But we would camp out in the bleacher seats with the radio and binoculars, and, I realize now, my dad and his friends were probably getting shit-faced.

I would do cheers and wait for the game to be over and for fireworks to begin - my dad always took me to fireworks games, and for the first years of my baseball life, I've got to admit that I was much more into the fireworks than I was into the baseball, the fact that my first words were "Go Team!" notwithstanding. But baseball was a part of my life. I went to games with my dad. I watched it on television or listened to it on the radio with my grandfather and uncles. I had Chief Wahoo souvenirs (my favorite of which being an oversized inflatable baseball bat, which was awesome), and it didn't cross my mind or anybody in my working-class family's mind that there was anything wrong with that or that the image was offensive. And slowly, I learned the game. I started to have favorite players (Joe Charboneau and Julio Franco, for example) and I started to pay attention to how the game worked. I started to play softball and began to learn the game's nuances. I became obsessed with baseball cards and statistics. I watched The Baseball Bunch with Johnny Bench every single week. I tried to get my friends to play catch instead of playing Solid Gold Dancers (not always an easy sell). Baseball was my game in a way that football wasn't (in spite of the fact that Cleveland really is much more of a football town) and that hockey or soccer or even basketball could never be.

My first love has always been and will always be the Indians - sort of like how my high school sweetheart will always be my first love and yet I haven't waited around for the past 15 years for him to propose or something but have moved on to other people. The Indians broke my heart when they fucked up in 1995 and 1997 and couldn't manage to win the World Series. I had loved them when they sucked - pretty much my entire lifetime - and the fact that the team had become really, really good and yet couldn't seal the deal, well, it made me feel betrayed. And so, as a result of that betrayal, and as a result of moving away from Cleveland, I started cheating on the Indians with other teams.

First it was the Cubs, which was really little more than a flirtation, but then I found my One True Love, the Boston Red Sox.** I fell in love with the Red Sox in spite of the fact that they are also an American League team (I had always justified my cheating on the Indians by saying that I would only do so with National League teams) and in spite of the fact that I fell in love with them at just the time that the Red Sox became the spoiler of the Indians late-90s World Series Hopes. I went to my first game at Fenway Park in 1999 - a nothing game at the end of September against the Orioles, crappy seats (though not obscured view) but a gorgeous day. I was with a boyfriend whom I had just started dating, and even though I had managed for two years to avoid becoming a hard core Red Sox fan (is there any other kind?), it was that day, with that loser boyfriend and at that nothing game, that I could resist no longer. I couldn't just "sort of like" the Red Sox anymore. The passion and dedication of Red Sox fans - not only to the team but also to the game that is baseball - is what baseball has always been for me, and when I went to that first game at Fenway Park I felt like I was with my people.

But the point of this post is not to wax poetic about my beloved Red Sox, which every Red Sox fan does and by which every non-fan is irritated. The point of this post is to talk, as a member of Red Sox Nation, about the elegance of baseball and why what Alex Rodriguez did last night was not just "part of the game" but went against everything that baseball is supposed to be. I should note that I was inspired to write about this because as was driving to school this morning I allowed myself to indulge in a little Sports Radio. I love Sports Radio, particularly when the conversation is about baseball, and so the Sports Radio was my reward for leaving my house and my sweet kitten. So, two idiots are talking about the A-Rod Interference (ARI), one of whom I gathered was an ex-pro-football player, and the ex-pfbp said something like,
"I don't think there is anything wrong with what Rodriguez did, and I don't
see what people are so upset about. He's a champion and the best player in
baseball, and in that moment he did what a champion would do - whatever he could
do to try to get on base. It's no different than when an offensive lineman
grabs his man's face mask or jersey to keep him away from the quarterback.
It's against the rules, and so if you get caught you get the penalty, but that's
part of the game. A champion will do whatever he can to win that game, and
it's not premeditated or intentional - it's instinct."

Ok, so in a nutshell, this guy thinks that the ARI was admirable and that it proves that he is a champion. Compare this with the following: when that play happened last night, the first words directed at A-Rod out of 1) my screaming mouth were, "You dirty asshole," 2) Stella's screaming mouth were, "You dirty fucker." Now, I realize that probably A-Rod is neither admirable nor an altogether dirty asshole, that he probably lies somewhere betwixt and between these two, and my point here is not to defame him. My point (and yes, I do have one and I will get to it) is this:

Baseball is not football, and the game is not designed for rule-breaking. The beautiful - some might say sublime - thing about baseball is that it is set up to be a perfect, complete universe that does not refer to clocks or cameras, and it depends upon its umpires, its coaches, its players and its fans together to create that perfect universe from the time that the National Anthem is sung until the final out is recorded. Baseball depends upon honor - not upon instant replays. Baseball is an intellectual, thoughtful game - not a game of brute force. Baseball requires the willing suspension of disbelief, the surrender of each of us to its rhythms and pace. Baseball is elegant, in the way that one might describe a mathematical equation or the universe as elegant.

So maybe you don't believe me. Maybe you don't think that what I say here is true. Of course, there is ample evidence that sometimes people in the universe of baseball don't act honorably. We can start with the Chicago Black Sox, if only as a matter of convenience, and work our way through the many scandals regarding corked bats, steroids, bad calls, bad fan behavior, charging of mounds, clearing of benches, hitting of batters, etc., ad infinitum. But the baseball season is a long season, and these incidents are exceptional. They are not the norm.

In every single football game, penalties are called. Every single game. Similarly, penalties are called in every single basketball game, hockey game, and soccer game. There are no penalties in baseball, other than the psychic penalty of being charged with an error or of having an embarassing batting average or ERA. One of the reasons that A-Rod's bullshit last night was so digusting is that baseball is not set up to deal with that sort of behavior. It is not set up to slap the player on the wrist for what may seem to some non-baseball fans a "minor" infraction.

The rules of baseball, much like those of the Old Testament God, are hard-and-fast and the consequences for breaking them are unequivocal and severe. The consequences for A-Rod's intentional flailing (and no fucking way was that "regular running motion" unless I have just never paid attention and A-Rod runs like Phoebe) were not just a minor set-back - Jeter being sent back to third base, for example, a kind of baseball equivalent of a 5-yard penalty. Had A-Rod played fair, Jeter most probably would have made it into scoring position and may still have scored, even with A-Rod getting an out. But because A-Rod broke the rules, he gets called out and Jeter has to go all the way back to first. Because this is baseball, A-Rod doesn't just get slapped on the wrist. The team gets bitch-slapped out of the inning, and, some might argue, out of the game. A-Rod sent the baseball universe out of wack with his behavior, and his whole team and the fans of his team are paying for that. In the world of baseball, this is neither admirable, nor the behavior of a champion.

And this is how baseball deals with those who break its rules because without them the game can't happen. There is no clock to make sure that pitchers throw the ball within a reasonable amount of time, for example; there is no instant replay rule to which to appeal. Baseball is a human game; it is subjective. And the game of baseball, in its rules and its traditions, demonstrates a belief in perfection or in the seeking of perfection that other sports, in the way that they inadvertantly sanction the breaking of their own rules- making such rule-breaking part of the game - do not.

Still don't believe me? Well, think about the other reversed call last night on Bellhorn's home run. After the call was reversed, a reporter went into the stands to ask whether it was a home run. The girl, a Yankee Fan, admitted determinedly that it was. It seems to me that she understands baseball perhaps even better than Alex Rodriguez. And, as Millar said of Rodriguez after the game, "If you want to play football, go strap it on for the Green Bay Packers.'' ***


*I can't write this post without talking about things that pretty much fuck my pseudonymity, were anyone who knows me to read this, but fuck it. Baseball is worth the potential compromise of that.


**You will notice that each of these teams has a "curse" that is supposedly responsible for their tragic losses, and it is not lost on me that I may just be a sucker for teams that have been cursed. If this is the case, I'm not sure what that says about me.

*** He said "strap it on." Hehe! Am I the only one who thinks of a strap-on in that context? Sorry - became Beavis for a second....

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