The Baseball Desert

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Back to basics

I'm not going to comment on the recent BALCO revelations or on the subsequent exchanges betwwen Major League Baseball and the Players Association - go to pretty much any sports website or blog and most of what could be said is being said (though if I had to pick one take on things that I like, it would probably be Paul's). The reason I'm not going to comment is not because I've suddenly decided that being an ostrich is a really good idea - rather, it's because what I feel about the situation 1) won't alter anything that happens in Major League Baseball and, more importantly, 2) won't in fact fundamentally change the way I feel about the game.

I received an e-mail recently from someone who has been reading the blog for a while and who commented on the lack of cynicism here in the Baseball Desert. Even though this wasn't the first comment of this nature that I'd had, I hadn't given the subject much thought until now. There are probably several reasons for the lack of cynicism - one possible reason is not having been overexposed to the sport like many people have been (given the limited access I've had to baseball over the years, being jaded and cynical would be akin to Robinson Crusoe being rescued from his desert island and then complaining that the ship's crew keep serving him lobster and champagne). However, I think that the main reason is that, despite having finally found my team this year, I would still be happy to describe myself as a fan of the game. I love the MLB version of the game, I love the Red Sox' version of the game, but if all that were to fall to pieces tomorrow, I would still love the game itself, those nine innings played between the foul lines, wherever those foul lines might be.

There's a scene in "For Love of the Game" where the owner of the Tigers explains to Kevin Costner's character why he's selling his ballclub (basically because "the times, they are a-changin'"...) and Costner says "The game doesn't stink, Mr Wheeler - it's a great game", and that's my feeling right there. There's a lot that's not right with the big-money, big-stakes version of the game, but the game itself doesn't stink - it is a great game, whether it's played at Fenway Park or a Little League field in Pennsylvania.

This was brought home to me last weekend after a lengthy period spent pondering whether I was going to continue playing baseball myself. Work, family commitments and aching knees were all pushing me towards calling it a day (which would make me eligible for the Hall of Fame ballot in 2009), but I went along to our weekly practice sesion anyway. For a variety of reasons (notably the three mentioned above) I hadn't played much baseball over the last five or six weeks, but then I got out there on the field - on a cold, foggy Sunday afternoon in December - and a strange thing happened: as I picked up a baseball and started to toss it around I had an epiphany (and an instant response to my 'do I hang up my spikes?' dilemma). I'll let Roger Angell explain:
It weighs just over five ounces and measures between 2.86 and 2.94 inches in diameter. It is made of a composition-cork nucleus encased in two thin layers of rubber, one black and one red, surrounded by 121 yards of tightly wrapped blue-gray wool yarn, 45 yards of white wool yarn, 53 more yards of blue-gray wool yarn, 150 yards of fine cotton yarn, a coat of rubber cement, and a cowhide (formerly horsehide) exterior, which is held together with 216 slightly raised red cotton stitches. Printed certifications, endorsements and outdoor advertising attest to its authenticity. Like most institutions, it is considered inferior in its present form to its ancient archetypes, and in this case the complaint is probably justified; on occasion in recent years it has actually been known to come apart under the demands of its brief but rigorous active career. Baseballs are assembled and hand-stitched in Taiwan (before this year the work was done in Haiti, and before 1973 in Chicopee, Massachusetts), and contemporary pitchers claim that there is a tangible variation in the size and feel of balls that now come into play in a single game; a true peewee is treasured by hurlers, and its departure from the premises, by fair means or foul, is secretly mourned.
OK, not very sexy so far, but bear with me a second...
But never mind: any baseball is beautiful. No other small package comes as close to the ideal in design and utility. It is a perfect object for a man's hand. Pick it up and it instantly suggests its purpose; it is meant to be thrown a considerable distance – thrown hard and with precision. Its feel and heft are the beginning of the sport's critical dimensions; if it were a fraction of an inch larger or smaller, a few centigrams heavier or lighter, the game of baseball would be utterly different. Hold a baseball in your hand. As it happens, this one is not brand-new. Here, just to one side of the curved surgical welt of stitches, there is a pale-green grass smudge, darkening on one edge almost to black – the mark of an old infield play, a tough grounder now lost in memory. Feel the ball, turn it over in your hand; hold it across the seam or the other way, with the seam just to the side of your middle finger. Speculation stirs. You want to get outdoors and throw this spare and sensual object to somebody or, at the very least, watch somebody else throw it. The game has begun.
Yes it has - it has begun here in the Paris suburbs and it will begin again elsewhere when winter ends. I can't wait.

How long is it to 'pitchers and catchers'?