Thursday, May 15, 2008

The best game. Ever.

Swing. . . .and a miss. . . .

Spring is the best time of the year--particularly in Texas. Besides the excitement of thunderstorms and the return of the nesting birds in our front yard, the days are usually just warm enough without being too hot, the days are getting longer, letting us appreciate the great sunsets more. But the best part of springtime is the return of Baseball after a long winter's absence.

Springtime and baseball--could anything be finer? Baseball--hands down, the best game there is. I'm sure aficinados of football and hockey and even curling can argue their points eloquently, but they won't convince me otherwise.

Baseball appeals to me on so many levels. There's nostalgia, of course (and I well remember as a school kid in the 1960s watching the great Red Sox-Cardinals 1967 World Series in the school lunchroom at South Elementary in Littleton, Colorado: McCarver, Flood, and Gibson vs. Yaz, Petrocelli and Lonborg pitching), and the great ballparks that become shrines of an almost religious nature.

When I was a kid, all the great ball-players were clean-cut and smiled a lot. .

Much has been written about the "zen" of the sport--its perfection in structure, from the number of players to the number of outs, to the balance between four balls and three strikes and the way it creates tension with each at-bat. It is a laid-back game, for the most part, placid and serene, unlike football, where blood is spilled on the gridiron and fans still cheer for more. But it requires the utmost attention from its participants, for baseball isn't a game of sheer brute strength: mostly, it is a game of finesse and strategy, and in spite of the teamwork involved, it is largely a one-on-one contest between batter and hitter. Its basics are easy to teach to youngsters, the kids picking it up bit by bit, the complexity of the game adding to their knowledge as they mature.

Ichiro taught a little something to E. . . .

One doesn't have to be particularly good at playing the game to become absorbed in watching it. To me, at least, this is what makes Baseball the only truly great sport.

It's a perfect game to follow on the radio late at night while lying in bed, or while putting away the miles on a long lonely highway, letting the masters of the word picture like Vin Scully, Dave Neihaus or the Texas Rangers' broadcaster Eric Nadel put you right there in the stadium.

But baseball is best experienced live, of course, and it's a great game whether on the major league level, at any of a hundred minor league parks, or on your neighborhood little league field.

In our house, we're rooting for the Rangers and Cubs this year. That's the Texas Rangers, of course, and the Saginaw Youth Baseball and Softball Association Pinto league Cubs. Our 7-year-old, E. is in his first spring season of coach-pitch Pinto ball. He did fine with the transition from T-ball last fall in the "instructional" fall league, and was getting the hang of hitting. We're under no illusion, of couse, that E. will be anything more than a recreational athlete--the sports gene isn't in our DNA. For him, we hope, he'll gain an appreciation of a great game and get a bit of exercise in the process.
E. has had a rotten spring for the Cubs. He really has no arm. He really can't catch. So he's been the every-other-inning right fielder. As for his batting--into the first dozen or so games, he was the only player on his team to go "oafer" at the plate. Batting at the tail end of the order, he was usually up to bat with bases loaded and two outs. After thirty at bats, no hits. He was pretty discouraged by it all, but he stuck with it, and as he started to come around in the batting cages and at practice, his enthusiasm gradually returned. He still was striking out. But he was getting closer.

I. charms the crowd. . .as usual. . .

Best seat in the house: Section 330. . .

Wednesday, E. played hookey from a half-day of school to join M. and I. and myself to see the Rangers and Mariners play an afternoon game. It was a beautiful day for a game. The field was green, the hot dogs only a buck, and youngest son I. was tickled to see his namesake Ian Kinsler play. Despite the Rangers losing 4-3 in 12 innings, it was an entertaining game, but Texas was frustrated by fielding errors and their inability to bring men home to score.

Something must've sparked E. in seeing the game, though. Maybe it was watching the at-bat preparations of Seattle's Ichiro--the big windmill swing of the bat, the wipe of the mouth, the tug at the sleeve. The next night, in the Cubs' second-to-last game of the year, after coming to the plate with a big Ichiro windmill warm-up at the plate, E. finally got his first hit of the year. And his second. To say he was proud would be an understatement. His teammates mobbed him in the dugout with high-fives and slaps on the back. And the coaches, who'd never given up on the boy with a big heart and not much baseball talent, presented him with the game ball. It was the first game ball awarded by the coaches this year.

What a game.

But what else would you expect from Baseball?

The "official" E. baseball portrait. . .

The SYBSA Pinto Cubs. . .

1 comment:

Whiskey said...

E's numbers sound pretty similar to mine from Little League . Congrats on getting those hits! That's a good feeling.

Speaking of strategy - I noticed Greg Maddux got his 350th win recently. Now here is one of the best pitchers (a true "finesse" pitcher), and strategists, the game has ever known. He keeps track of his own performances against every hitter, and watches what they do against other pitchers -- how they approach the plate during certain pitch counts and what they're likely to do in every situation in the game -- at an 0-1 count with runners on 2nd and 3rd, for example.

Sitting in the dugout, he'll notice the tiniest little detail on the field -- a variation in a hitter's stance, the spot where the first base coach is standing, and sometimes he'll say to a fellow player, "did you SEE that?" Those who didn't catch what he was talking about will find themselves cut out of future conversations with him.

Remember his age (42) when you look at his stats so far this year with the Padres... with 54.1 innings pitched, a 3.98 ERA, a 3-4 record (with losses partly attributable to his team's lackluster run support) 27 strikeouts and just 8 walks.

Career stats? Never a season ERA above 5, except for his first two seasons. His best years? Obviously with Atlanta during the mid- to late 1990s, when to watch him pitch was equivalent to watching Monet or Da Vinci paint. SEASON ERA's below 2 (1994 and '95)? F***ing amazing! Truly one of the best pitchers in the game -- ever.

Oh, and he was born in San Angelo... ;-)