Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Why I Love the Game

I just returned from my first spring training trip. I went to Florida with my buddy Frank to see my favorite team, the Baltimore Orioles. With the World Baseball Classic in full swing, eleven starters were off representing their native countries. At first I was frustrated, but that passed before we even made it to our first game. Besides, it’s more fun witnessing new talent so you can say – “I remember when…” When we landed in Ft. Lauderdale, waiting for our baggage, I heard the voice of one of my baseball idols, Brooks Robinson. Frank called his name out; he turned to us and smiled, firmly shook our hands, and then went on his way. We didn’t ask for autographs. We didn’t ask for pictures. We just wanted to introduce ourselves and shake the hand of a legend. What a way to start a week of baseball!

At one of the games, I saw a t-shirt with a picture of a worn baseball and a caption that said “Life begins when the season starts.” New beginnings, everyone’s in first place, and spring means new life for so many reasons. This slogan could apply to any sport for your typical sports fan, but it just felt perfect at spring training in Florida, where the sun was out, the grass was green, and we had just left winter behind in Baltimore, even if just for a few days.

But why do I love baseball? First, I need something to tide me over until football. I never played football. I was too delicate. But I played baseball. Not well, but I loved it. I played little league for years, and my parents were at every game. And my parents weren’t the sort that insisted I be the best, or had fantasies of scholarships, or lived their own dreams vicariously through me. They loved to watch me have fun. And even make a few good plays.

Everyone who plays baseball or softball has a few moments they’ll never forget. A solid hit where there is no recoil or vibration from the bat. It’s so smooth you almost don’t feel it, except for the launch of the ball off the end of the bat. Or that one amazing catch. My best year was when I was 12 and played outfield, but was slightly off in my timing and judgment so I would make a last second adjustment and catch a fly ball with a stretch and a roll. I was unstoppable – just for a season. My plays looked outstanding, and it was all due to delayed timing. But hearing cheers and helping your team was the best. Especially after plenty of seasons in the outfield chanting to myself softly “don’t hit it to me, don’t hit it to me, don’t hit it to me” because missing that pop fly as another run scores is, well, just the opposite.

But playing is only part of my love of the game. My dad would take me to Pirates games when I was a boy, and it is by far one of my fondest memories. Baseball games weren’t televised regularly back in the day, and we lived hours from Pittsburgh. But my dad would get tickets and take me whenever he could. Plus I saw my all-time favorite player in person at Three Rivers Stadium – Roberto Clemente. You should read about him. He was an outstanding player, and an incredible man.

Sports fans sound like name-droppers, but when we say a player’s name in awe, it’s not just about stats (and never about money). It’s about true amazement at one’s hand-eye coordination and ability to perform in such a competitive and pure sport. Baseball fans are patient. For many, people it’s a slow-moving, boring game. For true fans it’s witnessing strategy, skill, drama and the anticipation of the next big play, or perfect pitching performance.

So I love playing the sport, and watching the sport. I have my fondest memories with my father watching me play, and taking in a game together. And although my son Sean is all grown up and isn’t a big baseball fan right now, he played when he was younger for the same reasons I did. My wife and I went to all his games and practices just like my folks. I also took him to his first major league game with my buddy Greg when he was only four or five years old (Sean, not Greg). I remember his excitement the days leading up to the game, the day of the game, and the days that followed. I also remember taking him a few years later to a Baltimore-Seattle game and witnessing his first bench-clearing brawl. As much as I tire of retaliatory pitching, a 20-minute slugfest really is something to behold.

My daughter Megan played softball for the same reasons Sean and I played baseball: for the fun of the game. When it no longer became fun [insert stories of team stacking, prima donnas and relentless parents here], she tired of it. Same went for Sean and I.

I also enjoy going to minor league games. Actually, I prefer them. We have a single-A affiliate of the Orioles about 45 minutes from our home, the Frederick Keys, and they’re wonderful. 2005 Carolina League Champions! Just like at spring training, the stadiums are small and intimate. You really feel up close, all seats are great and the players are approachable. With minor league ball, you’re witnessing players that are in the beginning of the system. They’re in it for the love of the game. They make next to nothing financially, so all hold full-time jobs during the off season. In fact, many players are housed by local residents like visiting exchange students in high school. They’re all looking to move up the system, or head straight to the big leagues (the show). And fans are right there with them, hoping to see them achieve their dream.

I’m not a sportswriter. I can’t recite stats, or records, or recall what year anyone did anything. I can’t explain every rule, describe every pitch or guess what moves the manager is about to make. But I just love this game. And everyone has a baseball story.

I’ll close with just one more. When I was a boy, my cousin Peter and I were visiting a few of our other cousins in Montreal, Quebec, back in the early 1970s. I was probably seven or eight years old. My Uncle John was friends with a player on a minor league team (he may have even been a Montreal Expo). We were headed to a game with our uncle to meet his friend and our car overheated on the way. We found an orange plastic cone on the road side, trudged into the woods and found a stream, then brought back water several times until the radiator was filled (after it cooled of course). Eventually we got back on the road but were hours late and missed nearly all of the game. But my uncle was able to find his friend and introduce him to two young fans who were thrilled beyond words. I may not remember his name, but I will never forget the moment. The minor league stadium was huge to this little boy, and the player larger than life. Meeting Brooks last week took me back to Montreal, and the Pirates games with my dad. I may be 42 now, but the feeling is no different. Baseball makes me feel like a boy and a son and a father and a player and a fan. Awestruck, I shook the hand of Brooks Robinson who looked me in the eye and smiled back at me because I was grinning like an idiot and he knew I simply love this game.


Anonymous said...

The player was Jim Campanis - who caught for a couple of years for the Pittsburgh Pirates. He played for Trois Rivieres (Three Rivers), which is halfway between Montreal and Quebec City.

Jim used to be a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers, but didn't get much playing time. So the team's GM traded him to the Pirates so maybe he could hang around "the show" long enough to collect a ballplayer's pension. The GM was Al Campanis, Jim's Dad. The same Al Campanis who told Ted Koppel why there weren't more blacks in baseball's front offices.

Mike Morucci said...

Thanks, cuz! I thought his name was Campanis but I could only find info on Al.