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THOMPSON: In praise of baseball

January 13, 2020 - 12:00 PM

 


OPINION


As we near the dead of Winter…in Florida and Arizona - the homes of Major League Baseball's Spring Training - people are waiting. It is - by the way - just 37 days until baseball. And as much as I like other sports…golf, hockey, football…there’s something about baseball that no other sport can touch.

George Carlin - comedian and social critic - in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek monologue once spoke of baseball’s superiority.

“Baseball is different from any other sport, very different. For instance, in most sports you score points or goals; in baseball you score runs. In most sports the ball is put in play by the offensive team; in baseball the defensive team puts the ball in play, and only the defense is allowed to touch the ball. In fact, in baseball if an offensive player touches the ball intentionally, he's out; sometimes unintentionally, he's out. And in football, basketball, soccer, volleyball…and all sports played with a ball…you score with the ball. In baseball, the ball prevents you from scoring.”

We love the games we play…and I lived baseball in my youth…playing more double-headers - and occasionally in tournaments three games in a single day - than I can remember. And when I wasn’t playing, I was watching the big leaguers play. 

There was a time - until I discovered girls - when I could recite the individual and team statistics of not only my favourite team - the New York Yankees - but every major league team.

I was a walking, talking computer…committing to memory the batting averages of just about every player, the won-lost record and earned run averages of almost every pitcher…in both the National and American Leagues…statistics that changed almost daily.

My time might have been better spent…curing the common cold perhaps…but I loved baseball and, honestly, knew a lot more about baseball than medicine…which remains true today.

I knew baseball’s history, devouring anything written about the game and those who played it…happenings on and off baseball diamonds. I talked with any old timer who would make the time to talk to a kid.

My baseball knowledge at age 12 was such that my barber - a middle-aged fellow by the name of George Partin - had me drop by his shop every Saturday before noon to mark winners in his weekend baseball pool. I don’t know exactly how much money I won for George over the years, but I never paid for haircuts…and I appreciated the respect.

I’m not the fan I once was…I no longer track any team’s or player’s statistics. Some of that was finding other pursuits in life…and some disappointment in both technology and culture that altered the game.

Baseballs fifty years ago weren’t as lively…they didn’t go as far or as fast as today. Bats were rarely “juiced” - altered to swing faster and hit better and farther - sixty years ago…and players didn’t use performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs). In the old days players - at most - drank beer…which never made anyone - with the possible exception of Babe Ruth - play better.

So, like many true baseball fans, I don’t recognize the records of Mark McGwire, who hit 70 homers one season and 65 another season, or Barry Bonds, who hit 73 homers in a single season. Sammy Sosa’s 66, 64 and 63 homers in three seasons aren’t records for me either.

All used PEDs…Bonds later admitting “I don’t know what I was taking at the time,” and McGwire copping to heavy steroid use for years. And how do you believe Sosa, whose caginess as late as a year ago was inescapable when asked whether he used PEDs, answering, “I never tested positive.” What are you…a five-year-old?

They call the PEDs for a reason. Consider that Bonds in his first 13 seasons - from 1986 to 1998 - was a .290 hitter with an average of 32 home runs and 93 Runs Batted In (RBIs). In the six seasons he admitted to using PEDs - 1999 to 2004 - he hit .328, and averaged 49 home runs and 105 RBIs. He was 34 to 40 years old…when most players are retired or certainly past their primes. As for Sosa…doing the crime and getting caught are two different things.

My single-season home run kings…yeah - two players - are Babe Ruth, who hit 60 homers in 1927 in 154 games…and Roger Maris, who hit 61 homers in an expanded 161-game season in 1961. These guys weren’t juiced and neither were their bats and that era’s baseballs were smaller, lighter and in Ruth’s case, slightly softer.

The all-time home run king? Hank Aaron with 755 homers…with a tip of the cap to Babe Ruth with 714 homers, again when baseballs didn’t fly as far and fences were deeper.

Ask how many touchdown passes the top NFL quarterback threw in any year…and who it was…and you’ll get blank stares. Ask what two New York Yankees hit the most home runs in a single season…and even people who aren’t baseball fans will tell you Babe Ruth hit 60 and Roger Maris hit 61!

The other thing baseball has characters…players who are larger than life…not because they were rich necessarily…but because they have wit, charm and humour. Can you imagine the conversations in the Yankee dugout between Casey Stengel and Yogi Berra…two of the most quoted people in modern human history?

In 1956, Casey Stengel approached Yankee left fielder Bob Cerv when he was alone in the dugout during practice tying his shoelaces…sitting ten feet from Cerv…Stengel remarked, “There’s not many people that know this, but one of us has been traded to Kansas City.” There aren’t as many characters today, perhaps, but baseball still has more interesting athletes than most other sports.

Hey, I’m not some old guy who thinks things were always better in the good ole days. Well, at least the last part of that sentence is true. No, I love to see great athletes perform…the last World Series pitted two tremendous pitching and hitting teams…Houston and Washington. Great baseball…in any era.

And sure, rules have changed some - the strike zone got smaller in 1969…the American League adopted a designated hitter rule in 1973…and baseballs could be covered in cowhide as well as horsehide since 1975 - but the rules are much the same for the past half-century.

Baseball is honest…straightforward…fair…something many sports lack. In baseball, you have to get the opposing team out 27 times…and outscore them to win. There’s no running out the clock as in football…or basketball’s final minute…which can last ten minutes. You can debate a touchdown catch in football forever…was that guy holding…offensive or defensive pass interference? A home run is a home run.

Some people complain about the pace of the game. The anticipation in baseball is - like life - part of the excitement. What some find boring…a batter waiting until the last moment to step out of the batter’s box as a pitcher gets his signal…returning…only to wait again. This is part of the drama and suspense of the game…America’s pastime…and the greatest game anywhere as far as I'm concerned. I don’t need a two-minute warning…a 15-minute clock or 20-minute period countdown to make something exciting.

In baseball your team can be down six runs in the ninth inning…and until the other team gets that 27th out…you have a chance. Hey, just as Yogi told us, “It ain’t over ’til it’s over.”

Baseball is simple. Ask some football fan to describe the rating of his favourite NFL quarterback…good luck on getting an answer. But ask about a favourite baseball player’s batting average…it’s simple math…500 at bats with 150 hits…you got a .300 hitter!

And while size might matter in football….or basketball…or even hockey, in baseball you can be any size or shape. There are a half-dozen players who are just 5-foot 6-inches tall in baseball’s Hall of Fame. Indeed, one of the best hitters and fielders in baseball today is Houston’s Jose Altuve…also 5-foot-6.

That’s why, in just 37 days, as umpires yell, “Play ball!”…count me in. Besides, as George Carlin noted, “In baseball the object is to go home! And to be safe!” Now, how can you argue with that?

— Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines. His essays are a blend of news reporting and opinion.


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