Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Baseball Moments to Beat the Winter Blues

As the years go by, the more excited I get with the approach of each new baseball season.  I have determined that my feelings have as much to do with my love of the sport as with how baseball symbolizes the onset of spring.  As I slide into middle age, winter's cold and gray affects me more than ever.  I long for sunny days, green fields, and sweet smells in the air.  Most of all, I long for baseball, my daily companion from the first buds on the trees until the harvest comes in.  Our current winter has been especially long and cruddy; it has stayed around like a bad houseguest and its damp seems to seep into every corner of my apartment.  With that in mind, here are an assortment of baseball videos, artifacts, and recollections to help escape from the current unending winter into the green-jewled eden of the baseball diamond.

I can remember the first game of the 1988 series like it was yesterday.  Little details still stick with me, like Mickey Hatcher running the bases too fast after his home run out of excitement, or one of the TV cameras being dented by a Jose Canseco home run.  I was in the 7th grade, and that evening we had one of our twice yearly all-school vocal concerts.  (Everyone had to participate even if, like me, they couldn't sing a lick.)  Even though I wasn't rooting for the As or Dodgers, I was happy to get home and see the game, even if I missed the early innings.  In the 9th, when a hobbling Gibson stepped off of the bench in a last-ditch attempt to win the game, I had a kind of crazy premonition that he was going to hit a home run.  I can't explain it, I just KNEW it.  When he finally managed to will his broken body to swing the bat and make contact, I could tell in that split second the ball was going over the wall.  Still to this day I have not witnessed a more amazingly uplifting feat of perseverance on the diamond.

Perhaps the greatest athlete of his generation, Bo Jackson is probably better known as a football than a baseball player.  He didn't put up the kind of gaudy stats he did on the gridiron, but what made him great as a baseball player was his Paul Bunyan-like feats of strength.  As a young Royals fan, I forgave his tendency to strike out because of his practice of snapping his bats when dissatisfied, climbing up walls in the outfield, and running like the wind to make insanely difficult diving catches.  I recently viewed the ESPN 30 for 30 doc about Jackson, and was reminded of just how amazing he was to watch.  At the same time, it filled me with incredible sadness over the freak football injury that ended his career, and robbed fans of two different sports of a truly unique performer.  In the documentary he comes off as such a genuine and sincere person, the type of star that professional sports could use more of.

Rick and Paul Reuschel's "Big League Brothers" Baseball Card
Of course, not all ballplayers are amazing athletes like Bo Jackson.  It is a skill-based sport, and so many men who are short, dumpy, or fat can make a living if that can swing a bat or throw a sinker.  Over the years I've seen my share of portly pitchers, but I love this particular baseball card because it shows two decidedly unglamorous widebodies from the same family could break into the bigs.

Dewayne Wise's Catch to Preserve Mark Buehrle's Perfect Game
As a White Sox fan, my greatest baseball moment would have to be their 2005 World Series victory.  Since then the team has not scaled such heights, but they gave me a moment almost as dramatic in 2009.  Longtime Sox ace Mark Buehrle had taken a perfect game into the ninth, until the first batter he faced that inning hit a long drive to center that looked to be a sure home run.  Dewayne Wise, a light-hitting outfielder brought in as a defensive replacement who rode the bench and was little known to the White Sox faithful, climbed the wall, reached up over the fence, and came down with the ball.  It's one of the best catches I've ever seen, period, and it happened to come at a rather crucial moment, which made it all the better.  The Sox let the journeyman Wise go at the end of the season, but he came back in 2012, and is on the team again this year.  Wise is the type of journeyman player who never gets to play every day and bounces from team to team, but his ability with the glove has kept him in the majors for over a decade.  Baseball is full of unsung players like this, who work hard just to stay in the show.  I'm glad that unlike most other journeyman, Wise had a moment that he will be remembered by.

The Steve Bartman Incident
Unlike other White Sox fans, I do not bear the Cubs and their rooters any ill will.  I root for them to win, and for their real fans (not the drunken party boys enjoying the world's largest open air singles bar in the Wrigley bleachers) to finally be released from their misery.  As Cubs fans know, baseball can be exceptionally cruel.  Small instances of failure or the slightest miscue can, at the wrong moment, brand a player for life.  Baseball history is full of such sad figures, like Bill Buckner, Ralph Branca, or Fred Merkle.  However, only one fan has ever joined such ignominious company: Steve Bartman.  Like the others, he was a convenient scapegoat for defeats that were more collective in nature.  For example, Bill Buckner's error came only after bad managing decisions from John McNamara, who should have pulled the hobbling Buckner for a defensive replacement.  Bob Stanley, the reliever McNamara sent into the game, uncorked a wild pitch that gave the Mets their opportunity to win in the first place.  (The Baseball Project song "Buckner's Bolero" wonderfully summarizes the larger phenomena behind Buckner's muff.)   Likewise, Bartman going after the foul ball did not cause the Cubs pitchers to blow the lead, Alex Gonzalez to make a terrible error at short, or make the Cubs stink up the joint in the following seventh game.  He was going after the ball like several other fans in his section, but he was the one to be crucified.  In baseball, as in life, fate is a cruel master.


Tim Lacy said...

On a fansite the other day I was discussing whether Bo should be in the Royals HOF. I saw that his career WAR is like 7-8---pretty lousy. But do his fame and extraordinary exploits make him worthy? I'm loathe to celebrate celebrity for the sake of it, but I suppose I could acquiesce to a Royals HOF decision. The problem is that many others seem more worthy: Porter, Wathan, Al Cowens, etc. - TL

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

If you look at Bo's numbers, he was finally getting the hang of hitting big-league pitching, and was entering his prime years, which would have coincided with the onset of the juiced ball era. Had he stayed healthy, he could have had 500 career homers. Of course, that's speculation. As a sidenote, I just discovered that Bo will be throwing out the first pitch for the White Sox this season, which is pretty cool.