Lost game

I originally intended to publish this piece in issue 37 of my print-only ‘zine METANOIA, but thought it’d work better as a blog post, so…

“Fellas, I don’t want any one of you to feel bad about this.
No one of you coulda done this on his own. This was a team effort.”
~ Casey Stengel,
manager of the 1962 New York Mets,
after the team lost its final game of the season
to become the losingest baseball team in history (40-120)

One of my few remaining childhood possessions is a beat-up circa 1979 Philadelphia Phillies baseball cap. I bought it when I was in high school, and it’s traveled with me ever since then, and, not being a sized wool cap, it still fits. I used to have a “14” written in black magic marker under the cap’s brim, representing my favorite Phillie, Pete Rose, but that number, like Rose’s reputation and standing in the game, faded to a black smear long ago.

I’m saying this because some of my earliest memories are of Phillies baseball on the radio. I was always a Phillies fan, so much so that I actually chose my undergrad program (Temple University) in part because I knew I could hop on the subway in Philly and go to Phillies games quickly and easily. I was studying communications, and it was between Temple and Point Park, and what… was I going to go do my undergrad in the PIRATES’ home city???


This past season, the Phillies, who have always been one of my two favorite teams– the other is the Orioles– the teams I grew up following and loving as a fan– made it to the World Series. The Phillies lost to the Astros, four games to two.

I’m going to trace a progression of steps that led me from being a hardcore, loyal diehard fan of two teams in the 1990s to where I am now as a baseball fan:

* First, there was the owner’s takeover and gutting of the commissioner’s office, so that the office of Baseball Commissioner no longer was an authority in the league offices who functioned independently of the owners, player’s union, or umpires, but was a puppet installed by the owners to rubberstamp their agenda.

* Next, there were steroids, and the two ways that Major League Baseball as an entity reacted. First, while the PED-enhanced players were unnaturally breaking record after record, the league promoted those players and profited from them. Then, once the revenue was in and the dust settled and the ledgers balanced, the league did a turnaround:
Now, now, we can’t have any more of that. Not only are we imposing stricter testing and penalties for PED use, but all those records we loved while they were being set? Those all get an implied asterisk, and the players who set tham are persona non gratis. Not saying they can’t go into the Hall of Fame, but, you know…
Nothing sours me on something quite as effectively as a veneer of sanctimony over hypocritical, revenue-driven opportunism.

* Then there was realignment. Divisional realignment meant that one of my team’s (Phillies) longest-lived, deepest and most natural (geographic, same state) rivals, the Pirates, were moved out of the Phillies’ division, as were two other traditional divisional rivals (the Cubs and Cardinals). Same thing with my other team (the Orioles) in the AL East.

* The league’s “solution”? Institute interleague play and promote interleague rivalries, and while Mets-Yankees regular season games are fun for the fans, the upshot is that a team’s in-league record as league champion no longer really means anything.

* The playoffs were expanded. This was one of the things that made me lose interest in the NBA and NHL in the late 80s-early 90s. The regular season became a de facto “play-in” round for the playoffs.

* What MLB allowed to happen (or, more accurately, “did”) to the Expos as a franchise and to Montreal as a city was inexcusable. The league wanted Montreal to build a new stadium. Unlike US cities, though, where the teams push to get those venues built at taxpayer expense, the voters in Montreal and Quebec said NO PUBLICLY-FINANCED STADIUM. MLB responded by allowing the team to be gutted from the inside (puppet ownership and management absconded with the team’s scouting reports, traded away its best players and prospects, etc.) and then finally moved the team to Washington. Yes, DC needed a team, but not at the expense of Montreal.

* The BUILD US A NEW STADIUM thing ties into another factor: teams started building nice new stadiums, which in some cases was necessary, in other cases extortion of the sort that Montreal refused (“build us a ballpark or we’ll move the team”), but the result for fans was that every ticket was expensive, and there were no longer cheap, abundant bleacher seats. Say what you will about the Phils’ old home, Veteran’s Stadium, but in the 70s, 80s and 90s, the Vet had the 700 level: an upper deck of cheap, unreserved seats. This meant that a fan could go to a game inexpensively and on the spur of the moment. But with the new cozy ballparks, seating became limited and ticket prices soared, so that going to the ballpark became a boutique experience. There was no such thing as “spur of the moment:” planning to go to a game was like plotting out D-Day. And I don’t have a military mind.

* Next, players around my age or older started retiring. Baseball is partly about youthful hero worship, and when the rosters on my teams started filling up with players who were younger than me, it got harder for me to “look up to them.” Cal Ripken Jr, Brady Anderson, and Jim Thome were the last players I cared about and admired in the same way that I admired players when I was a kid.

* Similarly, broadcasters that I loved started leaving the game. I’ve always primarily enjoyed baseball on the radio, and when the play-by-play men I liked left the booth, the games literally no longer sounded the same. This paired perfectly with my teams moving their broadcasts from clear channel AM stations (which you could pull in anywhere on the east coast) to local FM outlets, which, for me living in Vermont, meant that if I wanted to hear my team’s radio broadcasts, I either had to pay for a subscription to an online streaming service, or just stop listening. So I stopped listening.

* Finally, the owners insistence on MORE OFFENSE! as the solution to the supposed “Why are young fans abandoning baseball” problem led to a bunch of rule changes that are too numerous to catalog, most notably pitch clocks, the “runner on second in extra innings” rule, and, worst of all, the DH being instituted in the National League. As someone who had a team in both leagues, I neither loved nor hated the DH. I liked seeing a pitcher take his turn at the plate, but I also liked it that two different rules in two different major leagues meant two different approaches to the game. Now that’s gone, and both the AL and NL have the DH, “just like,” as a writer once said, “every other minor league.”

The end result? This season, the Phillies made it all the way through the playoffs to the World Series, yet I did not watch, listen to, or read about any of their games: not just postseason, but preseason and regular season as well.

Not one pitch of one inning of one game got my deliberate attention.

I’d say it’s just a matter of the things to which I’m now choosing to devote my attention instead, and, yes, my writing and other interests have crowded out a lot of former “distractions” like movies, TV, news, and pop culture in general.

But every weekend this fall, I’ve carved out time to listen to Penn State football games. Joe Paterno dying, and players and coaches being generations younger than me, and revenue grabbing and conference realignment, haven’t killed my enjoyment of those games. Part of that allure is that in the fall, Penn State football feels like “home:” reminding me of my dad and his tales of being on the PSU freshman football team with head coach Rip Engle and a Brooklyn-born grad assistant coach named Joe, and it SOUNDS like home: hearing the games on the radio every Saturday fall weekend growing up.

But… Dad and I shared a similar love of baseball. You’d think that’d be equally hard to kill.

It wasn’t a conscious choice, and I still love baseball, but due to all those reasons above, and a few others, Major League Baseball lost me.

I wonder if I’m alone in this.

Fellas, I don’t want any one of you to feel bad about this…

Rule One: Be Ted. Rule Two: Why aren’t you Ted?

Ted Williams c. 1971 as manager of the Washington Senators (from SPORTS ILLUSTRATED)

A friend of mine said that Ted Williams was an impatient disaster as a hitting coach because his unspoken first rule of hitting seemed to be:

1 – Have the eyesight and reflexes of Ted Williams.

This is how I feel reading the advice of a lot of METAPHYSICAL LIFE COACHES lately. I get where they’re coming from: we discover this teaching, it’s deep and lifechanging, and we want everyone to get it and improve their lives and be happy (and, yeah, perhaps benefit ourselves in some way too).

That’s cool, but we need to remember that if a player isn’t batting .400 right out of the gate, maybe it’s just because he’s not Ted Williams. Yet.

Maybe the words of my Goddard College MFA creative writing advisor Nicky Morris will be helpful, too:

“I find that when I really want to learn something, the best way to do it is to teach a class about it.”

There used to be a ballpark…

Polo Grounds last game
Fans rush onto the field after the last out of the last New York Giants game at the Polo Grounds, New York City, 29 September 1957. (click  photo to enlarge)

Sixty years ago today…

The New York Giants played their last game, a day game against the Pittsburgh Pirates. The next season, the Giants moved to San Francisco, and New York City was without a national league baseball team (since the Dodgers also moved, to Los Angeles).

The Polo Grounds, the Giants’ home ballpark on the East River in New York, didn’t host another baseball game until 1962, when the Mets came into the league via expansion. They played two seasons there before moving to Shea Stadium, after which the Polo Grounds was demolished.

Of all the old ballparks, the ones I wish I’d seen games in are the Polo Grounds, Ebbets Field, Crosley Field, Shibe Park, and Forbes Field. Shibe Park is at the top of the list, obviously, since I’m a Phillies fan. But the Polo Grounds might be next on the list.

Consider these two pictures (click on the pictures to enlarge them):

Willie Mays makes his famous catch off the bat of Vic Wertz* Willie Mays in the 1954 World Series making “the catch” of a long fly ball off the bat of the Indians’ Vic Wertz. I’ve seen many cropped versions of this photo, but this is the uncropped version.

Note the distance to straightaway center field on the facing over the monument to Mays’ left.


This means, if I’m any good at estimating from a photo, that Mays caught the ball at around 430-440 feet.

Can you imagine hitting a ball 430-plus feet for a long out?

22050135_1505450729534141_2370192942271637995_n* I never realized, until I saw the aerial picture to the left, how close to each other Yankee Stadium (at the top right of the picture) and the Polo Grounds (at the bottom left) were. Less than a mile separated them as the crow flies.

An elevated train ran between the two ballparks, with one stop separating them. It would have been fun to have caught a day game (or game one of a doubleheader) at one and then hopped on the EL and taken in a second game at the other ballpark.

After the Mets moved out following the 1963 season, the Polo Grounds was demolished. A public housing project called Polo Grounds Towers stands on the site of the old ballpark. The former location of home plate is marked, but the only remaining trace of the old stadium is an abandoned stairway which once led from the Polo Grounds ticket office at street level down to the gates of the ballpark. There is more information about and pictures of the stairway, which was recently renovated, here.

And for you who know my love for Sinatra and investigated this post thinking there’d be a link to his song “There Used To Be A Ballpark,” click here. 

Dallas Green

Dallas Green at Spring Training 1980. Inquirer Archives.

Dallas Green died today at age 82.

The highest high point of my life as a baseball fan was the 1980 World Series. Danny Ozark took the 1970s Phillies as far as he could, but after the disappointing 1979 season, Green stepped down from the front office and took them the rest of the way. Two seasons later, the core of the team was gone, as was Green. But no Phils fan will ever forget the season that culminated in Pete Rose snatching that dropped pop foul out of thin air between Bob Boone’s mitt and the AstroTurf, and, one out later, the celebration.

And to a man, the veteran players, many of whom resisted and balked at Green’s list of clubhouse rules and hardline approach to discipline, echoed Boone’s words: “We couldn’t have won it without him.”

Thanks, Skipper!

Eva reviews: “You Never Heard Of Willie Mays?”

13642612You Never Heard Of Willie Mays? by Jonah Winter and Terry Widener

The publisher says… Many believe baseball great Willie Mays to be the best player that ever lived. In Jonah Winter and Terry Widener’s fascinating picture book biography, young readers can follow Mays’s unparalleled career from growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, to playing awe-inspiring ball in the Negro Leagues and then the Majors, where he was center fielder for the New York (later San Francisco) Giants. Complete with sidebars filled with stats, here is a book for all baseball lovers, young and old.

Eva says… So I really needed to read some books about BASEBALL, and so I got this one. And it was kind of hard but I got through it. It’s about this guy Willie Mays who used to play baseball for the Giants way back in the old days when everyone’s clothes were all baggy. So I bet Grandpa Rich knew this guy, even though he didn’t play for Boston.

willie-maysThe guy who wrote this one said that black guys used to not be allowed to play baseball with white guys. So I guess that Big Papi and a bunch of the guys on the Red Sox would be out of luck, and a lot of guys on Baltimore too. And you know, that’s just plain crazy. Because what if they had rules like that about people getting married? Because Tanya’s black and Mama’s white, and they wouldn’t be married and we wouldn’t have Mikey!

So I think we’re all glad in this family that they got rid of THAT rule.

So Willie Mays could catch the ball and throw it and hit home runs and he was fast, and that’s all you need to do in baseball, isn’t it?

This one has great facts and the pictures are really COLORFUL. And I love the cover, which was like a movie of Willie hitting a home run! (Note from Tanya: It was a lenticular painting.)

So that was good too.

So I’m glad I got this one even if it WAS hard.

Eva’s rating: ♥♥♥♥ (out of five)

(You Never Heard Of Willie Mays? by Jonah Winter and Terry Widener. Published by  Schwartz and Wade. ISBN 978-0375868443)

Eva Kelly is this blog’s six-year-old resident children’s book critic. 

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