The Coming Of A Pastime And The Passing Of An Age

“It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops.” – A. Bartlett Giamatti, from “The Green Fields Of The Mind”

My wife doesn’t get baseball.

No, really…it’s not that she doesn’t understand it; it’s just that she cannot see what I see in the game.  She cannot see the subtle strategy, whether it is a double switch or a slight shift of the outfield to the left while bringing the infield slightly over to the right when a switch hitter is up against a southpaw.  She cannot get as excited as I do when I see the subtleties of the game unfold before me, a stealth war on green grass on a hot summer day.  She’ll sit and watch my beloved New York Yankees with me occasionally and I’ll try and show her what I’m seeing and why a manager is moving his players around the field in a certain fashion.  Why statistics in baseball are LITERALLY the game plan, because that’s all you really have to go by.  Baseball is the only job in the world where you are considered successful if you succeed three out of ten tries; if that ever happened to me when I was working, I’d be out of a job and have no problem watching day games at the Stadium.  Then again, I’m not a guy with a piece of wood in my hand trying to hit a small sphere traveling at close to 100 miles an hour.

Baseball is all about the statistics and the subtlety.  In football, you draw up a game plan based on what you seen in film of the opponents’ game plans from previous weeks; likewise basketball and hockey.  Football is in your face; hockey operates at a relentless pace; and basketball occasionally plods along, but for the most part keeps the ball moving.  Baseball is slow, deliberate, nuanced, and demanding.  The only game plan IS the statistics, how well a hitter has performed in the past against a particular pitcher and visa versa; the on-base percentage of the batter and how a batter is performing in that particular game (if he’s 0 for 3 is he due for a hit or will he go 0for 4?); how often has your middle reviever pitched in the past few days…all things to be considered in one game of a 162 game season that lasts from the spring to the fall.

My running joke with my daughter for the past few years after we’ve finished watching the Super Bowl has always been to say, “3 weeks till pitchers and catchers”; this year she said that to me for the first time.  She’s starting to enjoy the game, and is slowly beginning to see the subtleties of the game.  Her favorite sport is football (as is mine), but baseball is a close second these days as I’ll be able to sit with her on pretty much any night (especially when the Yanks and Red Sox play) and point out little things.  It’s how I learned how to appreciate the game from my dad when I was young, and I think that’s a big part of it: getting the kids involved and knowledgeable at an early age.  Get them involved with a team and have them stick with it so they don’t become a band wagon jumper when one day down the road they unexpectedly win a World Series.  Just ask Phillies fans.

I grew up in a baseball era of transition, and coming from Brooklyn, this was an understatement.  The Dodgers left for LA in 1957 along with the Giants, which pretty much left the Yankees the only game in town.  Many Dodger fans simply gave up on baseball until the Mets came along in 1962; others continued to follow their teams and root for them in LA or San Fransisco.  My Uncle was a huge Giants fan, and every time the Giants and Mets would play, there would be a war in their household.  My dad sat out one season of baseball (proper mourning time) and caught the Dodgers playing in Philly a few times, but he became a NY Yankees fan officially with the 1959 season.  He just loved the game too much; he still does, watching all 162 of the Yankee games every season never missing a single one.  At the time, his hatred of the NY Giants as a Dodger fan outweighed his hatred of the Yankees; besides, he admired a lot of players on the Yanks, particularly Mickey Mantle.  By the time I went to my first game at Yankee Stadium in 1966, he was a fire-breathing Yankee fan…and that was what I eventually became.  I suffered through some many lean years; guys like Celarino Sanchez, Horace Clarke, Fritz Peterson, Lindy MacDaniel, Joe Peppitone, and others still cloud my memories with their awful play.  I didn’t know my first winning season and World Series Championship until 1976.

I had some more lean years as a fan in the 80’s and early 90’s, but the one bright spot was a first baseman named Donald Arthur Mattingly, a/a/a Donnie Baseball.  He was one of the greatest hitters of the game, with the immortal Ted Williams even saying he was the best hitter he has ever seen.  His fielding was stellar; the plays that Donnie would make at First Base were simply incredible.  He won 9 Gold Gloves, and except for 1990 ALL of them were consecutive.  That’s a tough number to get, but to do them consecutively (5 then 4) is practically unheard of.  They just don’t give away Gold Glove Awards.  His swing was a thing of beauty: he could pull the ball and put it in play wherever you needed him to.  He took advantage of fielders’ weaknesses.  He has a lifetime batting average of .307, and was a six-time All Star and a one time MVP.  He tied a record of hitting a home run in ten consecutive games.  His highest salary was his last contract from 1991-94 where he earned 3.4 million per.  That’s a bargain…and that’s just for those statistics.  Sadly, his only playoff appearance was in the first Wild Card Playoffs between the NY Yankees and the Seattle Mariners in 1995 (the best 5 games of baseball I have ever seen played) where he batted .407 with a slugging percentage of .708.  He retired after that season, way too young and his body battered with injury which robbed the game of someone who could have been as great a hitter as Ted Williams was if he had stayed healthy.  There was another intangible to Don Mattingly that everyone in the game recognizes: he was a fantastic teammate, and an all around good sportsman.  This was an ambassador of baseball, who has sadly failed to make it into the Hall of Fame yet.

As Mattlingly retired, Derek Jeter came up through the Yankee farm system.  He played with the Mattingly in the latter part of his last year, but in the Spring of 1996, he became the starting shortstop of the Yankees.  A superb hitter, a stellar fielder (who managed to perform the most phenomenal play I had ever seen in a playoff series against the Oakland A’s in 2001), and a quiet but effective leader in the clubhouse.  Like Don Mattingly, a Captain of the team (only Lou Gherig, Thurman Munson, Graig Nettles, and Ron Guidry held the title previously).  Like Mattingly an example of everything that is right about the game.  It was indeed the passing of an age, and my beloved Yankees went on a massive run to win numerous American League and World Championships over the next 13 years.  The patience of my youth was rewarded ten fold in my middle age.

At the exact same time of Derek Jeter’s arrival in New York, Alex Rodriguez became the starting shortstop of the Seattle Mariners in 1996.  It soon became aparant over his first 4 seasons, that this was a most special individual; a gifted five tool player who comes along once in a generation.  He was considered the best shortstop in baseball in addition to being a magnificent hitter.  His contract as a Free Agent signing with the Texas Rangers was the largest in baseball history.  When it became aparant after winning the first of his AL MVPs in 2003 that they would not be able to afford him any longer (and since the team was hemmoraging money), he was traded to the New York Yankees.  He agreed to the trade despite having agreed to play Third Base (as Jeter was firmly enconsed at Short) and he excelled at the position.  He won another two MVPs while with the Yankees over the next several years.  He is on pace to break almost every cherished record in the Baseball Record Book, including that of most lifetime Home Runs.  On paper and on the field this is a guy you want on your team.  Unlike Mattingly or Jeter, A-Rod can be aloof with his teammates and elusive with the media…nonetheless, it was always believed that he was never a user of Performance Enhancing Drugs.

The other day a report surfaced that he used PEDs after failing a drug test in 2003.  It was a “trial run” of testing that the Players Union carried out in an agreement with the owners that if 5% or more Major Leaguers tested positive for any banned substances, mandatory testing would begin the following year.  The results were supposed to be destroyed, but for some unknown reason it never was.  The only one of the 104 players on that list that was “leaked” to the press was Alex Rodriguez.  The man who so many thought was the last best hope of baseball, went the route of other players who had to use drugs to achieve the greatness that only he could achieve on his own without drugs.  The inevitable media storm followed and sports talk radio in the Tri-State Area was buzzing.  Everybody had something to say, including the President who said he “tarnished an era” .  Ouch…not good, especially from the first baseball fan coming on the same day in which you owned up, explained what happened, and apologized to baseball and baseball fans.  His teammates support him.

I am not going to condone what he did, nor will I second-guess if there’s more behind the story that has already published.  The man owned up to a mistake yesterday, and will have to deal with the repercussions of having made a poor choice (well, it’s complete stupidity if you ask me) almost a decade ago.  There has been no infractions since that test as random testing has been inplace since 2004.  The man has had arguably some of the best seasons of his career since 2003, all without the aid of any PEDs.  He is still an amazing player to watch day in and day out.  Perhaps this incident might even make him less aloof and more of a teammate, and also a better human being in the process.  He can set things right again by being involved with kids in making sure they don’t do any kind of drugs at all, let alone PEDs.  He can play at a level that is worthy of every cent the Yankees gave him in a 10 year contract and take baseball into the next age, a new era of the sport.  A new age untarnished by Performance Enhancing Drugs, and back to the basics of playing a game that is for the ages; a game of subtlety and nuance; a game whose torch is passed from generation to generation.

All I know is this: if Derek Jeter’s name is on that list of 104 names, I’ll take a torch and personally burn the new Yankee Stadium myself.

“Of course, there are those who learn after the first few times. They grow out of sports. And there are others who were born with the wisdom to know that nothing lasts. These are the truly tough among us, the ones who can live without illusion, or without even the hope of illusion. I am not that grown-up or up-to-date. I am a simpler creature, tied to more primitive patterns and cycles. I need to think something lasts forever, and it might as well be that state of being that is a game; it might as well be that, in a green field, in the sun.” – A. Bartlett Giamatti, from “The Green Fields Of The Mind”