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February 2000


by Fine Diner

Baseball - a slice of life

All my life, I have had two favorite sports - basketball and baseball. Basketball I have loved for three reasons: first, because one has to be in the best shape possible, and needs to use more of one’s body in order to compete successfully in this sport.

Second, it’s non-stop action. There are no special teams, no easy outs, and no line changes every two or three minutes. Of all the team-oriented sports, only soccer is more taxing for an appreciable length of time, as long as you’re giving it your all. (by the way, how many of you realize that the very first basketball was actually a soccer ball?)

Finally, well, geography says it all. Sorry Indiana, but you came late to the scene when it comes to divinely claiming basketball as your sport. It started here in Massachusetts over 100 years ago, at a little YMCA gymnasium in Springfield, and until another professional team gets as many as the 16 NBA titles the Celtics own, we’ll lay claim to that.

But baseball is another story. It’s in my blood, as it is in the blood of so many Americans, especially in the bleachers (Okay, so maybe some of that blood is 90 proof). It is national, attracting rabid fans in all parts of the country. You don’t need to be in a city of champions to be an avid baseball fan. You can even be in a city that has not seen a title since 1918.

It is universal, with a language all it’s own. Many baseball terms are not translated into other languages, the English is simply accepted, and the sport offers more glossary terms than the other three major sports combined. And the ultimate is that it connects with, and is parallel with, American, and in many cases, our own history. In fact, it has its own time line.

When people think of the depression, they think of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. When they think of integration and civil rights, they think of Jackie Robinson’s hard play and winning over first Pee Wee Reese, then major league baseball and finally, the world. They may also think of Hank Aaron’s tortured quest to break Babe Ruth’s home run record, or Frank Robinson’s debut as Major League Baseball’s first black manager. When they think of the unrest of the 1960’s, flamboyant, free thinkers like Joe Pepitone, with his exaggerated sideburns and Oscar Gamble, with the afro to beat all afros, come to mind.

With its vast collection of characters - irascible Ty Cobb, down-home wit Dizzy Dean, inexplicable Jimmy Piersall, irreverent Jim Bouton, defiant Ted Williams, puzzling Yogi Berra and off-the-wall Mark Fidrych - it’s rather surprising that it took so long for the Major League movies to ever come about.

Then there is personal history. There is no fan I know unable to connect a baseball experience with a personal experience. For some it’s the look of approval on parent’s faces when they get their first Little League hit; for others it’s memories of trips to the big city during their youth with lifelong buddies.

For me, the first memory that comes to mind is of the many rides my father and I took on our horses when I was a young teenager. We would saddle the horses and take them into the trails in the woods and fields near our house. One of the horses (usually the red sorrel Morgan Horse we called Rebel, because my quarter horse Geronimo was so skittish) would have a transistor radio tied to his saddle horn. We would ride into a small hamburger joint on the other end of the trail, listening to Ned Martin and Ken Coleman calling the Sox game. When we got there, we would tie the horses to a hitching rail out back, go in and watch the game on television while eating big, juicy hamburgers.

Baseball, especially the Red Sox, more than anything led to my career in sports writing. Not just the memories, but the richness of its history. Many call baseball boring, but very rarely does the same thing happen twice, and new, bizarre things happen every day. In what other sport would you find two players, Mike Kekich and Fritz Peterson, trade wives? Could a hockey player with one shot wipe out a seagull in flight like Dave Winfield did? Sure there have been offbeat players and occurrences in other major professional sports, but not as many and not at the same level as baseball. Baseball - you gotta love it.

My favorite Major League baseball story involves one of the best players ever, Richie Ashburn, and one of the worst teams ever, the original Mets. Ashburn was a solid hitter and fabled center fielder when the newly concocted Mets selected him in baseball’s first expansion draft. At 35, the Phillies thought that he might have lost a little leg speed, and decided not to protect him. The Mets jumped at the chance to scoop a legitimate name to put in the lineup alongside all the no-names they would try to make a team out of.

Anyway, Ashburn was made the starting center fielder, and playing second was one of those struggling no-names who presented a major problem: he could not speak English.

From the start of the season, Ashburn got frustrated as he rushed in on shallow fly balls to center, shouting “I got it!” only to run into a backpedaling second baseman who tried to apologize politely in Spanish while Ashburn in despair watched the batter gallop on for another base.

After a couple of weeks, Ashburn’s frustration started to show, and he didn’t know what to do. One of the best fielding center fielders in history’s jaw started dropping as fast as the ball. His fielding percentage (6 errors in 1962) was saved mainly because it would have been to cruel to hit him with the blame. Finally, a teammate took him aside, and told him, “Richie, just do this. The next time you get a ball just behind second base and it’s yours, yell out ‘yo la tengo! Yo la tengo!’ You’ll be all set.”

Ashburn stared at him, not sure exactly what he was talking about. “Are you sure?” queried the all-star outfielder.

“Sure. No problem. You say that, and you’ve got it made. You won’t have any problem then.”

The next game, it didn’t take long for someone to hit a blooping fly, shallow, just behind the gap between first and second base. Ashburn started charging in, his eye on the ball, but warily watching the second baseman start to backpedal again.

Ashburn yelled, “yo la tengo! Yo la tengo!” and threw out his glove. He glanced ahead and saw the second baseman turn and slightly bow, while graciously waving his glove, signaling to the veteran that the ball was all his. Ashburn put all his concentration on the ball then, but at the same time he lowered his glove for the basket catch, he was sent sprawling. Another shallow fly ball, another error, and another run against the Mets, who went on to break the single-season record for losses, with 120 against their 40 wins.

The right fielder did not understand Spanish.

That’s why I love baseball and why I love sports writing. All too often, the stories write themselves. It’s just hard sometimes to keep a straight face when you’re typing them.