WHITE SOX SLUGGER PAUL KONERKO (L) CONGRATULATES PITCHER MARK BUEHRLE (R) FOLLOWING THE CLUB’S 4-1 VICTORY OVER MINNESOTA ON SUNDAY
There’s a hint of fall in the air here in Chicago. The leaves on the few elm trees that remain following the Dutch Elm blight that took so many of the beautiful giants in my youth are beginning to turn as are the gangly sycamores and noble hickory whose easy to reach lower branches have given dozens of generations of Midwestern boys both the thrill of accomplishment in climbing their first tree and the misery of their first broken bone as they would occasionally plunge willy-nilly from those same inviting limbs landing awkwardly on the ground.
One other tree also has begun its seasonal transition; the beloved Green Ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica), a friend to early settlers due to its ramrod straight trunk which was used extensively in the construction of log cabins. More recently, Midwesterners discovered another use for the tree’s wood: It makes wonderful weapons for baseball batsmen.
There is no more difficult feat in sports than a baseball batter’s attempt to hit a round ball careening toward him from a little more than 60 feet away, inches from his person, at more than 90 miles per hour with a rounded stick of wood weighing on average 34 ounces. The 5 ounce ball of tightly wound horsehide around a plug of cork can be made by the pitcher when thrown to dip, to shoot left or right, to slide, to flutter, or to hop like a scared rabbit.
It can also be made to curve so that when leaving the pitcher’s hand, the ball appears to be making a bee line straight for the batter’s head only to fall harmlessly, knee high, over the outside corner of the diamond shaped home plate. The 18 inch sideways break of the ball while dropping 10 inches causes the knees of the best major league hitters to turn to jelly as their rear end obeys the natural law of self preservation and attempts to flee even while the highly developed mammalian brain of the batter fashioned over 50 million years of evolution is screaming at the rump to stay put so the player can swing the bat. All to no avail. The pitcher tries not to smile too broadly because he knows the next one he throws may not be as perfectly delivered. It may in fact hang like a ripe plum, low and inviting over the middle of the plate, at which point the batter swings and connects and sends the ball flying into the next zip code.
This is the essence of baseball; the eternal struggle between pitcher and batter. The one-on-one face off in baseball is the most lovely of human competitive endeavors as it reveals all of the characteristics of sport that captures us and demands our attention. There’s courage, guile, physical prowess, and a will to win at stake on every pitch. It is what makes baseball such a sublime and elevating experience for those of us who love the game and hold it so close to our hearts.
Those of us with a passion for the game are now a distinct minority in America. It wasn’t always so. The fact that there are dozens of reasons why this is true tells us more about America than it does about the popularity of baseball. While there are many that bemoan the fall of baseball from its preeminent position as the number one sport in America, one cannot escape the fact that the game has fallen victim to what is the essence of America itself; an unalterable and inexorable fact of life in this country that things do not remain the same, that society and culture are in a constant state of motion.
America has changed. Baseball hasn’t.
Baseball couldn’t change. The game itself is draped in tradition, in memory. There is no other game seen through the prism of remembrance quite like baseball. Whether sitting on the back porch in 1950’s and 60’s suburbia listening to the hissing, static filled play-by-play on radio while the fireflies blinked to announce their presence and the sweet smell of Jasmine filled the nostrils with the scent of summer, of family, of a shared passion. Or perhaps in the city you sat on the front stoop with every other house on the block blaring out the call of the game, a broadcast legend conducting a city wide symphony of sound, mothers with babies, fathers with sons, and the young, the old, laughing, talking, arguing, loving. A neighborhood, a community united around a passion so intense that enmities were temporarily forgotten as “the boys” or “the bums” performed extraordinary feats of effortless athleticism with both the workmanlike attitude of the blue collar hero and the pizazz of a circus performer.
Yes, that America existed at one time. And while memory may skew some of the details and gloss over much of the unseemly realities from those times, there is no doubt that baseball for much of the country occupied a privileged position in the hearts and minds of the people. In a time before the total saturation of sports, before ubiquitous replays, before free agency made players into hobos, before steroids turned the players into Frankenstein monsters, before rape trials and murder trials and divorces and scandal after scandal there was the pitcher, the batter, and the lovely dance of strategy and possibility. To bunt or not to bunt. To swing away or hit and run. To pitch out, or put the rotation” play on, or simply to play “straight up.” This was actually part of the national conversation when baseball was king.
But America stands still for no one. Certainly not for a game that used to be known as “The National Pastime.” For that is what one did when a game was in progress; pass the time in other pursuits while the game itself functioned as the background to daily life. While we sat on the porch listening to the game, as a family we would be laughing, joking, carrying on, reading, knitting – all the things that families do together that cements the bonds of love and affection we hold so dear and make life itself fill up with joy and satisfaction. Of course, utter silence would reign when some pivotal point in the game was occurring. But otherwise, baseball was important for what it meant as a shared experience for the family, for the neighborhood, and for the larger community in which we lived.
But those things have faded in significance. The reason why is not really important. It’s not like one can get in a time machine and take America back and deposit her in some other reality. Some refer to that period as a simpler time, a misnomer if there ever was one. It’s never been “simple” being an American. The ability to change, to adapt has always been the most highly prized attribute in American society. “It’s good to be shifty in a new country” was actually an adage taught in grammar school in the 19th century. The unbridled pace of change that makes America such a hugely vibrant and vital place also makes it a scary, even depressing milieu to live. For many, the psychic cost of change is too much to bear and broken lives and shattered families litter the seascape of our society like the flotsam and jetsam of a shipwreck following a huge storm.
Change is neither good nor bad; it simply exists. And the changes in American society that have caused the game of baseball to lose its luster and hasten its fall from grace say more about us as a people and how we interact with each other than it does about the game itself. It is ironic that while sports – all sports – currently occupy such a lofty position in the national psyche that the essence of the games and their original purpose as a uniting expedient for American communities has been lost. Now the games are shared experiences nationally. There is not quite the same feeling of intimate association with a particular team and its players. Sports is very big business. The franchises are owned by giant corporations rather than the gentleman sportsmen of the past. The Yawkeys, the Comiskeys, the Wrigleys and other former owners used to take a personal interest in seeing that their teams were competitive. This is not necessarily true today as the relentless rise in salaries has necessitated that the bean counters dictate how competitive a team might be in a given year. Can’t afford that extra $15 million a year for a front line pitcher? Oh well, maybe one of the kids we drafted last year will come through and allow us to be competitive until September.
This is what passes for strategy in today’s game.
But even the machinations of heartless corporations can’t dim my love and affection for baseball. Try as they might, neither the players nor their hated nemeses the owners can destroy the game. Even if some mighty wind arose and swept away every major league club, their high priced players, their greedy owners, their luxury boxes, their cookie-cutter stadiums, and especially their grasping, conniving, insufferable sports agents, the world would go on. In fact, it doesn’t take a soothsayer to know that even if such a calamity were to occur, the very next day, somewhere in America, whether on a farm or in a back yard or city park, young boys would gather to play the game. Which also says a lot about America. Some things will never change. And I suspect that despite the popularity of other sports, there will always be just enough of us who love baseball to keep it alive.
Not everything in America changes. And that is a good thing.