“Baseball is my life.”
I remember reading that in a biography about the legendary Frank Robinson. He had written that motto onto his cherished baseball glove, according to his recollection, at about the age of 8, and he slept with that glove every night. That’s around the age that I read his story, and he inspired me to do the same. I was already halfway there, as I had a habit of breaking in a new glove with a baseball in the pocket, lots of vaseline, and some dirt. I would put that new glove under my mattress, night after night, only allowing it the light of day to amuse myself while playing with my friends during the warm Chicago summer, but always right back under the mattress until it was broken in just right. Just like Frank did.
I even wrote “baseball is my life!” (I added an exclaimation point!) in permanent marker in the sweet spot of the web of my glove. Me and my man Frank were one in the same, except for one difference: He had talent, and I didn’t. Not to his level, anyways.
AN INNOCENT BEGINNING
Baseball has been my life, though not in the way it was Mr. Robinson’s. It has led and followed me through every moment, both triumphant and humiliating. I was a “latch-key” kid, raised by a single father who was often at work when I got out of school. 3:15 PM from elementary school, and home was a ten-minute walk from there. Except on game days. I could make the run in 3 minutes flat. I’d run straight to my neighbor “Donna’s” house, and she’d make us grilled cheese sandwiches while we watched the last three innings of the game.
I learned so much from baseball in those days. I first loved watching Dave Kingman launch fastballs into the unsuspecting neighborhood, and a pudgy-looking Rick Reuschel throw darts. I admired Ivan DeJesus because, well, I’m not sure why, and one of my favorite players was Mike Vail, because his name was “Mike”.
This newfound love led me into my backyard and our elementary school’s crude fields to play, whenever possible. My brothers and friends and I would play until our fingers bled, and then do another 9 innings just to prove we could. That’s where I perfected the “Marmol slider” with a whiffle ball. Enlistment in the structured Little League followed, and competition joined the hormones that were suddenly flooding my veins.
I learned. I learned about competition and camaraderie. I was envious of that thing that kid just did, and proud as hell when I did something better.
I absolutely idolized baseball players. Billy Buck and Barry Foote were gods to me, and Thurmon Munson and Michael Jack Schmidt. I was raised in a very racist environment. Not my family, but my community. My small hometown was surrounded by Gary, IN, but there were no others allowed. I was so young I didn’t know. It never hit me until much later that Bill Madlock was black. He was just a “Cub” to me, and one of my favorites.
I remember a young Mark Grace, in an interview on live TV, saying curse words that were too quick to bleep out. I was a teenager by this point, and using much worse language myself, but this was the first time I had heard them from my idols. “Wow”, I thought to myself. “He talks like Grandpa.” And the mystique was broken.
I learned. I learned that not everything was fair or right in the world, that not everything was as sanitised as my sheltered upbringing. But I still knew baseball was perfect.
THE BIG PLUNGE
Just as I was finishing high school, and preparing to enter the world all on my own, the “Bash Brothers” made their debut in Oakland. Wow! I was already hesitant about my new independence, and now these cyborgs were invading my baseball safe space. Jose Canseco hit 40 home runs and stole 40 bases. No one in the history of my baseball had ever done that before, and I had the backs of 10,000 baseball cards to prove it. No one.
Years went by, the players got bigger, and the records I so cherished from my innocence continued to fall. Maddux and Glavine did a commercial, famously claiming that “chicks dig the long ball.” ESPN created a promo into their baseball highlight show depicting players that looked like Olympic bodybuilders blasting (literally) screaming baseballs into the abyss. Ratings were up, the missing World Series forgotten, and money was flowing.
On the North Side, we acquired a skinny little kid named Sammy Sosa. He had an arm, could hit a little bit, but he could run. He threw a little and hit a little and ran a little until he showed up one day and said BAM! He started launching baseballs WAY over Waveland. I was intrigued, and as a Cub fan, I was excited.
Sammy started to rake, and a legend was born. He was up to 40 homers that one season, about to break Maris’s record, until he broke his wrist. No problem, we knew, Slammin’ Sammy will be back, better than ever. We can rebuild him. Stronger. Faster. Then he returned, with the “Pop and the Hop”.
Sosa went off, and Cubs fans swooned. I did too. The moonshots were mesmerizing; the numbers mind-numbing. He was doing things that no one in baseball history had done since, well, Mark McGuire had done two days before. What a show, and I knew it was all fake. But I couldn’t turn away.
JFK’s assassination. John Lennon. 9/11. There are monumental moments in life where you’ll never forget where you were and what you were doing. I’ll never forget where I was when Big Mac hit #62. I was at my favorite watering hole with a date I had been working on for two months (and her best friend). We were having wings and beers and planning a fine night. Neither were particularly big baseball fans, nor was anyone else in the bar that evening, but every TV was tuned to the Cubs vs. DirtyBirds baseball game. They turned off the jukebox and cranked the game volume. The bar went silent with every Mark McGwire AB. And then he did it. The place went wild, I could feel the vibrations throughout this non-baseball city, and I was in awe. Yet I felt dirty, because unlike all these newbie hipster fans, I knew baseball, and I knew how this happened.
Sosa went on to set records of his own, blasting 60+ bombs for what seemed like every season. 65? Slammin’ Sammy laughed at it. 150 RBI? By July! The records fell, the crowds grew, and profits and ratings soared. Everything was good with baseball, except what wasn’t with us baseball fans.
Sammy went on doing his show, running out to his adoring fans in right field, kissing and thumping and taking his position on the field marked by grass as bare as his soul, and we gushed. I watched live on TV as his bat shattered and the cork flew, and I honestly believed him for like 3 minutes as he explained it away as a mistake. This was a bat he used to put on a show for the fans, he explained. This wasn’t Sammy Sosa, he pleaded, this was Slammin’ Sammy. There’s a difference. But was there?
Kerry Wood put an end to that question with a few well-placed baseball-bat whacks at Slammin’ Sammy’s “legacy”.
I learned. I learned that the pure and innocent game of baseball, all the numbers and traditions I held dear, wasn’t so pure after all. My beloved baseball hit me much like adult life had done, straight in the face with bills and reality and stuff.
Baseball knew it was taking a hit with the ridiculous shenanigans taking place between the lines, so it was dragged, kicking and screaming, into cleaning itself up. The game came back to respectable norms, and reasonable stats were mostly restored. Sure, the ball was juiced and every other middle infielder was hitting 20 bombs, but it wasn’t grotesque. Everything was getting back to normal, so something had to get out of whack. That’s just the way our world works.
The Houston Astros stepped up, and kicked Pete Rose and the Steroid Generation to the curb. “Let me show you how to REALLY cheat!”.
Good grief, this is bad, and we haven’t scratched the surface. Many other teams, mind you, and maybe even yours. If I may put on my “old man yelling at a cloud” hat for a minute, everything is different. You used to be able to call a phone number and talk to a person. No more. You used to be able to manage an account with paper receipts. No more. You used to be able to trust the one true love from your childhood, the ever simple and pure baseball. No more. Technology has made everything better and easier, right?
Technological cheating takes everything to a whole new level of yuck. It threatens the game, the whole damn game, at another level. I’m old enough to remember boxing, and when it was a major force in the American sports scene. Boxing matches, and those participants who fought in them, were national treasures. But money got too involved, and the mob got too involved, and influence got too involved, and the sweet science all but died. I don’t want that to happen to my beloved baseball.
The beauty of baseball, for it’s adoring fans, lies in the unique. We don’t have clocks. Baseball is chess to most other sports’ checkers. As Yogi famously quipped: “Baseball is 90% mental; the other half is physical”. Other sports rely much more heavily on one-on-one physical matchups. Can this wide receiver out-run that corner? Can that forward jump higher in this specific instance to grab a rebound over his counterpart? More basically, in boxing, can this dude knock that dude out? Baseball isn’t so much those macho matchups. The closest we come, which happens about 300 times per game, is the pitcher vs. the hitter.
Stuff vs. bat speed. Deception vs. preparation. Guile vs. gall. That is baseball’s mano a mano. If you screw with that, it’s no longer a game of integrity.
I learned. I really didn’t have to learn anymore, but I still learned. I’ve seen sports that I love, and once thought invincible by an entire nation, brought to it’s knees and worse when it’s integrity is questioned. I’ve learned that we can’t simply depend on a steadfast core of support while tinkering so much that we may drive them away in pursuit of a new crowd. And I’ve learned that I want to trust my baseball and my records and my memories that I’ve held dear since my childhood.
WHAT HAVE I LEARNED?
I’ve learned what I’ve always known, and there ain’t much more that needs to be dissected: I love baseball. Always have; always will.
I’ve learned that when life gets me down, I can lean on baseball. Speeding ticket? Schwarber’s got me with an oppo double off the ivy. Customer shafting me on payment? Nah, did you just see that Hendricks’ 2-seamer? Grandma died? Oof, that’s a tough one. Might need to break out some Javy.
I know what I know, and I know I love baseball. I don’t want to see it get “easier” the way the rest of the world is going. We don’t need better ways to cheat. I have baseball etched in my brain, and it don’t need updating, unless it’s legitimate. Nolan Ryan K’d 5,714 batters, Hack Wilson drove in 191, Roger Maris smacked 61 in 1961, and Hammering Hank knocked out an astonishing 755.
I swear this is true, and don’t you dare change it: I know Barry Bonds hit a bunch of HR’s. I know it is something like 763, 764, 765. I swear I do not know. I have successfully incorporated a mental block in my baseball brain to not register that number. I will never look it up. Don’t need to.
The Cubs play real games later this month. As of now, we are tied for first place.
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