2020: The Opener

Frank here. Today is the COVID-19 version of starting a season. But not in Cincinnati where Opening Day is more than a spot on the calendar – it’s an event. The circumstances make this year different here – no parade and the streets won’t be jammed with people dressed in red. Although my team must wait until tomorrow, the game is back today for a short season and an uncertain future.

To mark the return of the boys of summer, here’s a little bit about the grand ole game – the national pastime we call baseball.

 

The Place – A local cathedral dedicated to the game where people gather to worship with faith and allegiance for their team and yell praise to their cleated heroes. A place for relaxing, eating popcorn, getting excited, holding the breath, hoping, then moaning or screaming – back to relaxing, then something different will probably happen – and if you watch baseball long enough, something new. A place for popcorn, hotdogs, peanuts, Cracker Jacks, cold drinks, and standing to sing during the seventh-inning stretch. Let alone reunite with memories and make new ones.

The Field – A four-cornered diamond. Home at the bottom – and affectionately called the plate. Three bases counterclockwise from home: first, second, and third. All four corners are 90 feet apart. The field is defined by extending lines from home to first and home to third continuing to a wall.

The Game – Divided into nine segments called innings. Each with two halves, one for each team to bat. In the end, the team with the most runs wins the game.

The Ball – Nine inches in circumference, weighing five ounces. A piece of cork wound in yarn, covered with rawhide, then bound with 216 stitches.

The Pitcher – The one in charge of the ball. Standing on a mound of special dirt in the center of the diamond and known as the hill. Sixty feet, 6 inches from home, and ten inches higher than the rest. The pitcher is the one who can make the ball spin, curve, rise, fall, and even wobble to and fro. Sliders, sinkers, heat, and curves known as Uncle Charlie, but from Dwight Gooden, it’s Lord Charles.

The Defense – The other eight teammates of the pitcher. One catcher behind home to catch the ball from the pitcher is required. The other seven can be anywhere on the field – even at the hot corner. All nine players wear a  glove specialized by position, but chosen by players based on personal preferences. The objective is to prevent the batter from returning home by going from base to base.

The Opponents – a batter and eight others anxiously waiting to swing the bat at home against the pitcher. If they are lucky, they will be able to run the bases with hopes of returning home. Better yet, hit the ball over the wall for an opportunity to touch all the bases during a glorious trot without any threats.

The Batter – On the opposite team as the pitcher and holding a trimmed wooden stick made to specifications. The batter has fractions of a second to react to the ball thrown by the pitcher at varying speeds. Even the best batters fail 65-70% of the time.

Independent Arbiters – Dressed in black or dark blue, not members of either team to make decisions. The head cheese behind home, and three blind mice – one near each base.

The Game – Balls and strikes; fair and foul; single, double, triple, and home run; walk, hit by pitch, balk, and interference; sacrifice bunt, sacrifices fly, and suicide squeeze. Speed, stolen base, hit and run, clear the bases, grand slam. The batting team gets three chances for success before switching places to be the defense, which normally happens 16 or 17 times in a game – but it could be more.

Righties, southpaws, starters, relievers, and closers painting the black, delivering chin music, and throwing hooks, heat, backdoor sliders, brushbacks, changeups, nibbles, whiffs, out pitches, and striking out the side – all in hopes of a no-no.

Batters swinging lumber as leadoff hitters, cleanup hitters, power hitters, professional batsmen, and banjo hitters hoping for liners, ropes, grounders, gappers, seeing-eye singles, bloopers, Texas leaguers, frozen ropes, one-baggers, two-baggers, three-baggers, four-baggers, dingers, taters, and even accepting dying quails – especially with ducks on the pond or the bases loaded. Touch ‘em all! Curtain call … but don’t get caught in a pickle.

The defense with running, leaping, diving, circus, and shoestring catches. Turning tailor-made double plays are a pitcher’s best friend. Climbing the wall to make the catch allows the pitcher to breathe a sigh of relief after holding their breath.

The batter is up. The pitcher takes to the mound, and the windup to throw the ball. Swing at the ball, hit the ball, run, chase the ball, catch the ball, scoops and dives, touch the base, tag the runner, foot on the bag, bang-bang, out, and around the horn. Three up and three down, now let’s get some runs.

It’s the top of the ninth and the bases are jammed. No place to put the batter. Two down and the tying run is on first. The go-ahead run at the plate. The nervous crowd is standing and cheering for their heroes to hang on for a victory.

The pitcher is on the hill. Stares for the sign. From the stretch. A high hard one up and in. The crowd gasps. The batter goes down, then intensely stares at the pitcher. Back to his feet, then brushing off his pants, the batter digs in for the attack.

From the stretch, a pause, steps off, the stretch, and the pitch. A hanging breaking ball, a lined shot to the power alley that has a chance to leave the yard … off the wall. One run scores, two runs score, the tying run is rounding third and heading for home. A strong throw to the relay man, the throw, a play at the plate. Out! … and this one belongs to the Reds. The crowd goes wild, time to go home happy. Drive safely.

Yes – that’s baseball. The great American pastime. The game looks easy, but it is strategic and difficult.

Me and Oscar Wilde at a Ballgame

We sit along the third base line as the late summer afternoon puts another quarter in the jukebox of a melodious sky whose lyrics rhyme with every kind of forever after kind of place. And Oscar, he minds to the third baseman, who’s being rather possessive of the mussed up bag he’s responsible for guarding.

“The chap is of a mind to take that thing you call a base home with him, it would seem . . .”

“It’s why they refer to third base as the ‘Hot corner’. Because if you’re looking for the most suspenseful of locales on a diamond? It’s as good a place to start as any,” I explain.

Seven innings down and I’ve explained a lot of the nuts and bolts of a typical game to the old boy. He digests every morsel of information before spitting out literary devices in return, so the bargain? It’s fantastic as far as I’m concerned.

“Why does the fellow on the mound behave in such a fastidious manner? Is it not considered poor etiquette to deny the batter his involvement with this baseball?”

“Involvement with this baseball . . I don’t think Ted Williams could have said it any better than that, my man. Well see, it’s like this. The pitcher is attempting to talk that baseball into doing his bidding. But the batter, he is well aware of the liberties he might be able to take with the very same ball. So the pitcher holds on, as if holding to a lover he fears might quit him,”

“I see. So . . chess with a sidearm?”

“Oh God, Oscar. I can’t imagine Vin Scully could paint a baseball portrait any better!” I say.

“Here, here!” He replies as we clink our plastic cups full of a brand new round of merry.

“And there are how many stanzas to this parade again? . . Nine?” He asks,

“Officially, yes. But unofficially, the game could last forever. There is no clock, there is no time limit. I’m going to lend you a book . .it’s called The Iowa Baseball Confederacy. The author, W.P. Kinsella . . he will educate you as to why the game is like no other game ever invented. Because if both teams are tied after nine innings have been played . . they keep on playing until someone breaks the seal. Home team always batting last . . .”

“Ah, it’s very much like when I penned The Importance of Being Earnest. There were indeed moments that stretched into days and weeks and yes, months . . where I believed the very core of the sun would meet its end before I might conclude! And as it were, I produced several books out of that one . . before business was attended to and the pages were snipped into a more agreeable fashion, as it were . .” Oscar says.

“Because the words are like a baseball game, huh? They have no real end to them. The precarious little buggers,” I say.

“So, assuming this contest does not outlast the sun? Might you have a place for me to settle in, where I may commence with a postlude on the day’s events? It is my solemn wish to share these moments with strangers whose divinity can be found at the bottom of a well apportioned glass!”

“There is a place, across the bridge in fact. Full of firemen whose ancestry goes back to when these streets were navigated by horse drawn carriages. Romantic like that,” I smile.

“Are they the sort to appreciate a good story?” Oscar asks.

“As long as the tap is singing and the company understands the fine art of colorful language . . yes. But I must warn you, they are rascals, the whole lot of them,” I warn him good naturedly.

“I do love a good rascal,”

We toast as the inning ends on a double play, cut clean from the geometrical nursery rhyme of Tinkers to Evers to Chance. And the sun splashes down in one final vertical thrust before bidding adieu.

The visitor’s half of the ninth inning begins with the home team having things well in hand, by a 6-2 score. But with one man out, a rally gets to stepping and the next thing we know it’s 6-4 with two men out, but the bases loaded. And now the buzz of the crowd folds into a single, collective hush as their best hitter steps to the plate with all manner of bad intentions as far as that baseball is concerned.

And now the windup . . and now the pitch . . .

Sign Language For Dummies

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Baseball went to the mattresses this month in a bloodletting that leaves three franchises in limbo on the heels of the Houston Astros sign stealing scandal.

As a result, Houston fired its manager and general manager. Boston fired its skipper, Alex Cora, who had served as bench coach for Houston and is suspected of using nefarious means to steal signs while in Boston as well. And the New York Mets Carlos Beltran stepped down before ever managing a single game.

If you’re not down with the latest MLB ordeal, it’s really quite simple. The Astros stole signs, which is something that’s been going on since rawhide was invented. Only difference is, they created an elaborate system of video monitoring, which had been banned by the league prior to these actions. During home games, they had someone watching a video monitor and banging a trash can to signal what pitch was coming for Astros hitters. When world class hitters are accorded that kind of 411, it becomes batting practice. Hence all the heads that have rolled, and all the many heads that are teetering nervously in anticipation of being found out.

So yeah, Houston does indeed have a problem, and you can expect every away game on their schedule to become an episode of American Horror Story. I’m pretty sure they should forfeit their three game series in New York in late September, unless they’re curious as to what Fallujah looks like in the fall.

They had us all fooled, yours truly included. Hell, back in October, I included the Astros in my Heroes World Series edition saying “. . . The Houston Astros have done just about everything right over the last five seasons . . .” Fucking guys.

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Sports is supposed to be an escape from the everyday world of taxes, transit strikes, unpopular general elections and shitty roads. But seeing as how sports is made up of fallible participants, the odds are not always in our favor.

In fact, professional sports has a long and sullied history of scandal and controversy. In basketball, there was referee Tim Donaghy’s game fixing scandal. Hockey saw the Edmonton Oilers trade Wayne Gretzky to America, shortly after which it became illegal for Canadian teams to win the Stanley Cup . . . I think. And in football, you have the New England Patriots.

Baseball’s got all of them beat. There is one hundred years worth of unfortunate events tucked in its seams. From the 1919 Black Sox scandal to Pete Rose being banned from baseball for gambling on games to the steroid era to this month’s sign stealing revelations involving the Houston Astros and Boston Red Sox.

The truly unique aspect regarding the sport formerly known as America’s Pastime is that time seems to romanticize (or monetize) most of its wounds. Countless books have been written and several movies have been made about the 1919 White Sox fixing the World Series. And while the steroid era will always be a blight to fans of a certain age, the dirty truth is that it produced a tsunami of green. Player salaries grew exponentially as a result of tainted numbers while owners took full advantage of an explosive revenue stream by creating their own television networks. Welp, at least Commissioner Bud Selig fought to preserve the integrity of the game . . .

So even out of worst case scenarios, baseball usually figures out a win. Can you imagine a real life tragedy being romanticized to the tune of billions of dollars? Oh wait . . I forgot about James Cameron.

This latest scandal is already going next gen with crazy accusations about Astros players wearing electronic devices during games. It’s like Bad News Bears meets MacGyver meets The Wire meets Are you kidding me with this shit?  But that’s okay because player agent Scott Boras insists that his client- Jose Altuve- never used an electronic device. Which should put these rumors to sleep since no player agent has ever told a lie about their client, ever.

Of course, as sports scandals are wont to do, this has peeps feeling all sorts of ways . . most of them homicidal. The Astros are the latest Public Enemy Number One to come down the sporting pike, and it doesn’t get any more vitriolic than the text my friend sent to me yesterday morning when we were discussing Sign-Gate. He had some . . uh . . sharply fashioned thoughts as per Houston’s diminutive shortstop, Jose Altuve.

That little fucker should quit baseball and become a jockey. 

I should note my friend is a Dodgers fan. And a gambler. So, yanno . . when he’s hurt he says things he doesn’t really mean. Even though he really means them.

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All kidding aside (for a moment), I really hope the Astros don’t suck this season. As much as the Yankees fan in me wants to see them win eighty five games and miss the playoffs, the baseball fan in me wants to see them make another run at October. Because it would prove how good this club truly was/is, and that it didn’t need to resort to Nixonian tactics. It would serve to remind us once again that no player or team will ever be above the game. And it will provide a much needed respite to Astros fans, who waited fifty five years to celebrate a championship and now are left to wonder what it all meant. They deserve better than what they’ve gotten, I do know that much.

Perhaps the biggest irony is that for all the video recording and trash can banging the Astros were utilizing, their home field advantage meant bupkis in the World Series last October. They became the first team in World Series history to lose all four games played in their home park.

It was as if the baseball Gods were taking out the trash.

 

 

 

 

Snide of the Yankees

All that romance I was painting when I wrote about a day at the ballpark turned out to be a much needed prescription for my home town Bombers. Because after being held to one run in that eleven inning loss last Saturday, they exploded for thirteen runs the next day. And they haven’t lost since. I like to think we served as a baseball talisman for the pinstripes. It’s not the coziest notion, seeing as how there are thirty thousand peeps who think the same thing. But it still counts.

Anyways . . I figured since I was gifted with some free baseball at no additional cost (since the MLB hasn’t figured out how to tack that on yet ), Imma pass it along in kind.

  • The only time a hot dog is an entree is at the ballpark. Something happens to the little fuckers on the other side of the gates that ups the flavor equation exponentially. There’s nothing like having a dog at the game, because the game is the only place it tastes like Kobe beef with a fried egg on top.
  • That thirty thousand (or thereabouts) was the attendance for a Saturday afternoon first place showdown in which the weather was picture perfect says everything about the insane price structure of game tickets. In the quest to make each game an “experience”, the MLB has beaten the living shit out of the sticker price. I’d be sadder if I didn’t have the MLB network on speed dial.
  • As for those prices, it ain’t reserved for the seats. We grabbed a foot long, a bucket of chicken tenders and garlic fries with three drinks for the princely sum of $51 U.S. Mantles. I could have hosted a BBQ block party for less.

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  • And no, alcohol was not included in that price, which would have added a ten spot to the bill.
  • Because I do not drink alcohol when the sun is in prime time. It’s not because I’m an alcoholic vampire, but thanks to the memory of a football game in Baltimore in the middle aughts when I made merry under the sun. The resultant headache had me wishing I was Tracy Mills from the movie Seven.
  • The wave has made a comeback at stadiums across the country. And it made me wonder where this collective psychosis originated, so I found this article that settles the matter.
  • It should be illegal for a man to wear a jersey . . even at the ballgame. It also should be illegal for a woman not to wear a jersey, wherever they like. Sorry dudes, they’re just better at it.
  • Is it wrong to feel provoked when I see a flat bill on a baseball cap?
  • Eleven dollars for a 16 oz Bud Light is only worth it if there’s a bottle of Jim Beam inside the can.
  • If you’re not in line to see Monument Park before 11:50 am, you’re out of luck. The gates open at 11:30 am. We were unaware of this short window as we strolled over to find our seats and then grabbed some dogs before heading over. We made it with three minutes to spare. Babe Ruth’s number was three. Coincidence? Probably, but I like to think the dogs worked in our favor. Even at six bucks a pop.
  • As we waited in line to get into the Stadium, a sixty something dude who was six pack pregnant took off his t-shirt to put on his Rays jersey. If I hadn’t already spent forty five bucks to park my car, I’d have given him a fifty spot to keep his t-shirt on. We’re standing right in front of a fucking sign that prohibits just about everything short of breathing but this guy can go horror story on our eyeballs. Jesus!

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  • Why is it that conversations about sports always seem so smart when you’re spikes deep in them, but mindless when you’re eavesdropping?

About that Seinfeld skit: I spotted a fella of Italian descent several rows below us sporting a Jason Giambi t-shirt with the sleeves cut off. And my mind went here . . .

George: (Laughing) Jer, check out the guy in the fake Giambi jersey . . . amateur.
Jerry: Wait a minute . . are the sleeves cut off?
George: They are! Do you think he cut them off on purpose?
Jerry: What other possible explanation is there?
George: Who does that?!
Jerry: It’s unheard of!
George: There’s no room for people like this in civilized society!

From there, Jerry engages the fan in a conversation that goes sideways. After which Jerry and George end up being escorted from the Stadium by security.

  • The shift is the new phone booth stuffing. Scientifically speaking, it’s when the defense only butters one side of the bagel. It’s done so’s the hitter can’t pull the ball into real estate where they ain’t and it looks something like this.

The Shift

  • Players don’t know how to bunt any longer because bunts don’t get them paid.
  • It’s frightening how many dudes leave the men’s room without washing their hands.
  • What do you answer hot dogs, chicken tenders and a pound of garlic fries with? The responsible choice would’ve been salads, ice water and laxatives. Let the record show that a case of White Castles ain’t the responsible choice.

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Welp, that’ll do it. I’d like to send out a special thank you to Gary Cooper’s stylish Brylcreem, Derek Jeter’s tarnished reputation and the lost (then found) files of Kate Smith.

Always bet diamonds.

I Got 99 Problems But A Pitch Ain’t One

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Going to the new Yankee Stadium is an exercise in the megalomaniacal excesses of old money crashing head long into new money and making babies; entitled little creatures whose trust funded silver spoon was upgraded to platinum in the reboot. For a culture stuck in a perpetual hunger for all things next gen, this joint plays a peach melody.

I’m plenty fine with the new digs, really. It’s just that, as a Yankee fan of a certain age . . I adhere to the bargain basement sensibility that asks, “If it’s swimming just fine, why the harpoon?”. Of course, just like Jeopardy whiz James Holzhauer, I know the answer before the question is set into its stone foundation. Yankee Stadium Part 3 is a masterstroke of inevitability run amok. Where sports stadiums have become premium tier caviar cribs, loosing a greed-think philosophy which has turned a day at the ballgame into a Disney vacation replete with fine restaurants and overpriced everything else. Seats have become investments, patrons have become guests and season tickets have turned into catching a couple games a year, maybe.

I miss the Yankee Stadium that was replaced by this one. The history of that place alone should have placed it on the National Register of Historic Places. The names that played its stage define an epoch of sporting accomplishment. From Ruth, Gehrig and DiMaggio to Mantle, Jackson and Jeter. Not to mention the rivals who graced the coliseum of a golden age: Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, Ted Williams, Satchel Paige and Hank Aaron. And that’s just the first chapter.

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And oh yeah . . Knute Rockne and Vince Lombardi coached there. Joe Louis and Max Schmeling fought there. The 1958 Title Game (“The Greatest Game Ever Played”) between the Colts and Giants was played there. And Pope Paul VI and later Pope John Paul II celebrated mass there. And that’s just chapter two.

As we’ve seen, Cathedrals do fall and time is an impatient beast when it comes to change. Hell, the game has been transformed into a stat geek’s paradise; what with infield shifts that resemble pileups on the BQE and players who don’t know what a bunt looks like, and feast or famine box scores. But through it all, the game is really still as simple as a pitcher telling a little white pill what to do while a batter tries to talk it into doing something else.

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So it was that I took my son and his young bride to see the Yankees play the Tampa Bay Rays on Saturday afternoon, in a battle for first place in the American League East. A match-up of team aces, with the Yankees sending out Masahiro Tanaka and the Rays answering with 2018 AL Cy Young award winner Blake Snell. Thing about aces, there are expectations. The crowd expects A plus cooking, so when he starts scribbling B work, the chatter can get colorful. I happen to think there’s a beauty to watching a pitcher negotiate outs from the third rail. And these two pitchers ransomed zeroes from their respective arsenals, as if devils at the wheel. Tanaka’s four seamer was flat lining and his slider called in sick and yet, he was able to muster six scoreless innings before getting hit on the shin and becoming the latest Yankee to hit the injured list, which reads like a Hemingway tally.

His counterpart, Blake Snell, has stuff that’s more wicked than a trigger happy ridge runner. And while his curve ball wasn’t fooling anyone, his Hi-Lo game kept the home team at bay; with a fastball that salted the rim and a change up that tossed them into the drink time after hopeless time.

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One of my favorite things about the game is the down time, with which a writer chisels out Longfellow, Hopper and even a little Seinfeld. I talked with my son about that magical ride of a ’96 Yankees club. And then I studied the iconic facade that wraps itself around the holler of blue seats whilst pitching a Seinfeld skit inspired by the Goombah with the Giambi t-shirt a couple rows south of us that had the kids cracking up. We figured out the Yankees Rushmore somewhere in between.

As is my baseball ritual, I honed in on the infinite ripples of a game. Like how Tanaka stops on a dime at the quarter pole of his delivery. And how Luke Voit plays first base like the most earnest of rugby players. And how Kevin Kermaier of the Rays became my Grand Master of a most favorite baseball funk, with his insane between pitch stretches and his bantering to teammates and that Tarantino howitzer of an arm.

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As is the new age custom, the bullpen took the keys a little more than halfway through and outside of a few hiccups, they made it into extra innings after a Gio Urshela drive to deep right died two feet short of a walk off home run celebration for the Bombers. In Kermaier’s mitt, because of course. And then Austin Meadows of the Rays tore a moon beam into those same right field seats two innings later to give the visitors the lead for good.

The 2-1 win gave the Rays temporary possession of first place. And from the looks of it, these guys are intent on being a thorn in the sides of baseball royalty this season. Talent is the greatest equalizer, and when you have the chops to do something about it, you always got next.

Because some things never go out of style.