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 ones body
in order to compete successfully in this sport.
Second, its 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 youre 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,
well lay claim to that.
But baseball is another story. Its 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 dont 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 its 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 Robinsons hard
play and winning over first Pee Wee Reese, then major
league baseball and finally, the world. They may also
think of Hank Aarons tortured quest to break Babe
Ruths home run record, or Frank Robinsons
debut as Major League Baseballs first black
manager. When they think of the unrest of the
1960s, 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 -
its 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 its the look of approval on
parents faces when they get their first Little
League hit; for others its 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
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 baseballs 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
After a couple of weeks, Ashburns frustration
started to show, and he didnt know what to do. One
of the best fielding center fielders in historys
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 its yours, yell out
yo la tengo! Yo la tengo! Youll be all
Ashburn stared at him, not sure exactly what he was
talking about. Are you sure? queried the
Sure. No problem. You say that, and youve got
it made. You wont have any problem then.
The next game, it didnt 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.
Thats why I love baseball and why I love sports
writing. All too often, the stories write themselves.
Its just hard sometimes to keep a straight face
when youre typing them.