The Fall Classic

20 10 2008

What one of my favorite baseball bloggers, a Mr. Tim Malcolm of philliesnation.com, remembers most from the 1993 World Series isn’t the crowd fizzing in Veterans Stadium, or the way the runs were scored or the atmospheric rip of a bat connecting with a ball on a late October night.

What he remembers most, as he writes in the blog, is the bunting (not the offensive strategy) – the flags draped from the rafters all around the stadium, dressing the game with the aura of regality.

We lost that year – we lose every year – but the sense still lingered in Malcolm and the scores of the kids who gave their lives to baseball that year (myself included) that they’d been part of something bigger, a chapter in the ever-changing novel of American existence.

I can’t ever imagine feeling the way with the Super Bowl, the grand and almost invariably disappointing culmination of the American machismo, compared to the World Series’ culmination of the American soul. If the Series has an air of royalty, the Super Bowl has an air of carnival, with everything ballooned up to epic, almost cartoonlike proportions, providing you with the sense that you’re part of something prefabricated. For all of the innocence that baseball has given up, it still remains the main attraction at its own event; it stands for itself. For all the ground it’s lost to football in terms of popularity, baseball can still boast the certainty that it’s a bigger deal to win the World Series than it is to win the Super Bowl.

First, there’s the link to history. World Series champs are tied to all who came before. And in terms of history, there’s no comparison here. Winning the World Series puts a team in the company of the 1927 Yankees or the 1906 Cubs, whereas winning the Super Bowl puts a team in the company of, at best, Lombardi’s Packers or the 1972 Dolphins. But you know who Lou Gehrig is, you know who Babe Ruth is and you might even know who Tony Lazzeri is. Who, exactly, (without checking Wikipedia) did Bart Starr throw his passes to?

Baseball is woven into the American existence in a way that football may never be. The best football players are celebrities. The best baseball players, even now, are heroes.

Second, there’s the basic requirement of consistency. To win the World Series, you have to win often. To win the Super Bowl, you have to win once. And while, yes, those stakes mean that the Super Bowl has greater ramifications than any individual WS game, save Game 7, they also ensure that more often than not, we’re left with a wretch of a game purported to be the sport’s pinnacle. With the Series, you have to string together performance after performance; no series comes down to a fluke, not even Buckner in ’86.  A city seethes one night and rejoices the next, undulations of emotion that are, at the most generous, compressed for the Bowl.

Psychologically, the Series represents, above all, the end of summer. With it go our long, warm nights and our barbecues, our summer flings and our conversations that run on until morning, our softness of being and our tanned skin. Baseball keeps us young – when it ends, we roll back into adulthood. When the Super Bowl ends, we wait for baseball.

The Super Bowl represents, above all, unabashed commercialism.

The event has been so stuffed with hyperbole that it’s actually reduced the game itself. The sideshows – the commercials, the halftime show (and the nipples involved), Media Day, gambling, the Puppy Bowl – have overshadowed the main act, like bringing in the Stones to open up for MGMT. Save last year and a few other anomalies, the games themselves have done little to warrant anything more than their relegation to secondary status. They play merely the role of host.

It’s along the lines of an entourage, where a cluster of clingers-on get their one chance to shine because of the prominence of one central figure. The same thing goes on whenever a Wal-Mart drops on a town, as a Cold Stone, a Quizno’s and a dry cleaner’s aren’t far behind. Thousands of events crop up in the week before; supermarkets start stocking more queso dip and advertising products for the Perfect Super Bowl Party, and so on.

With the World Series, the games happen so often – most importantly, plurally – that they remain the story. A series produces myriad subplots, like acts in a play. Here, we see Curt Schilling’s bloody sock and a comeback from down 3-0 in a series, or Josh Beckett and the rest of his overmatched pitching staff in Marlins teal out-dueling a Yankees lineup that pelted balls off the Yankee Stadium façade all year. A one-game event doesn’t have that luxury. So, the media and other profiteers are forced to create them. See: Namath, Joe and his prediction; or Peyton finally getting over the hump and winning a championship (the hard and fast media barometer for athletic success, providing Trent Dilfer the ability to flip off Dan Marino at NFL alumni cocktail parties).

So what it all comes down to, for the Super Bowl that is, is foreplay and then no follow-through. And it’s not that hype doesn’t exist in baseball. It’s that whereas the Super Bowl has 5,000 people instructed to dance around the stage during the halftime show and mouth the words to the song, baseball has bunting.

The games take care of the rest.





Having A Catch

25 03 2008

The first time we tried, my father hit me. Mom laughed. My jaw hurt.

The second time we played catch, we used a softer baseball.

As time went on, we worked through bloody noses and broken egos. With the 20-percent-leather black, fluorescent-blue-laced Bo Jackson glove on my left hand, we inched back up to the big leagues of backyard ball. Time aged and Dad and I began to stretch out the yard, the ball arcing across the spring and deep into autumn.

There was a time when catch was the endgame, nothing more. When a simple head nod stole both of us away into the backyard, gloves snapping in the sunlight and tendons tensing and recoiling as the ball rolled off our fingertips — it does roll, we forget, and you feel the rip of the laces just before it takes off. It’s pure. It’s just a line, going back and forth, back and forth, back and forth and I’ll be glad to argue (and we should sometime), that catch is the highest form of human communication.

First of all, there’s not a better forum for bullshitting. You can talk and talk and talk and forget, ultimately, that you’re doing anything beyond talking. Your body goes into a version of automation. Just catch, step, throw.

And not only that, you’re hurtling an object that could do some damage at somebody, expecting they’ll catch it, and then fully expecting they’ll throw it back to you in the only place they should — at your nose. Trust isn’t falling backwards, hoping an employee will catch you. Trust is asking somebody to fire five ounces of nostril-seeking cushioned, corked leather.

But as time ages, so it grows more complex, and catch gives way to more sophisticated games. Catch becomes real ball games. Conversation becomes business. Ideals, joys and passions become commodities. But deep down, all of life’s game’s, just like baseball, are just derived from the simple game of catch.

When you reduce every baseball game, if your team plays catch the best, you’ll win almost every time (because, of course, if the pitcher and catcher are interrupted in their game of catch by your bat, you’ve got yourself a chance). Same as in life. All you ever need to know, you learned in kindergarten? Bullshit. You learn it in Little League. You learn it playing catch.

Giving, sharing, receiving. Working to get better. The beauty in not only precision but experimentation — remember first seeing a curveball? It was like the universe burped.

Catch is where we learn not to get out of the way, that the best way to deal with things is to position yourself directly in front of them. Phil Rizzuto once got a call from an angry mother because her son, who was told by Rizzuto that the best way to catch a pop-up was to ‘put his nose under it’ followed his advice literally.

It’s where we learn that if we work hard enough, we will get better — we will get stronger. But it’s also where, I fear, we’ll learn that we’ll also get worse as we get old.

Catch broke apart, then connected Ray Kinsella and his pop in Field of Dreams. And hell, without that, there’s no If you build it, he will come. Pop Kinsella didn’t come for the steak.

Catch is the reason I went to my prom with a black eye. I was long-tossing before a game my senior year against our archrivals, turned away to mention something to one of my teammates, thought I got the bounce, and then positioned my left eye socket directly in front of the ball’s trajectory. Kid had a hell of an arm, too.

Catch gives us stories. It gives us a chance to build relationships and to reflect on what’s come and what’s ahead. But most importantly, catch gives us a break. Catch pauses time, connects us to the seasons. And on this Tuesday, the first day of the 2008 baseball season, dig out the glove. Smell the leather, the pine tar residue, and remember.

For baseball, put more eloquently than it is on this page, here’s a good list of some baseball quotes. I’m not usually into quote compendiums, but, hey…it’s a special day. And it’ll be a great way to spend 15 minutes at work.