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.