UB Today Alumni Magazine Online - Winter 2000
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Play Ball!



The Feel of the Ball



UB Athletics




Baseball is the spring game, and the summer game. Football can have fall; hockey, winter.
    Driving in the car you pass playing fields, and with lines and bases they are made into baseball diamonds. Diamonds. Baseball is played on the perfect field; wet outfields and rocky infields don't spoil the diamond.
    Look at that beautiful playing field, I tell my wife, who I admit is not very impressed. What I see of course is not merely a field, but a place where a game is played. And always I then recall the home run I gave up that lost a game (I was not, by the way, a pitcher; so why was I pitching then? It was a game, and so I played at pitching), or the time I was lucky and got really good wood on the ball, which in my case meant getting a double (nor was I a slugger or even a good hitter).
    Was there ever anything more free than grabbing a bat and ball, or the ball if Bill had the bat, the bat if Paul had the ball, and heading for the field? In the summers we played on the roughest field imaginable, yet it wasn't long before the paths were worn and you knew where the pitcher's mound was even if it was anything but a mound.
    We call it the national pastime, but I don't think anyone seriously believes that anymore, and maybe hasn't for many years. Like everything else, the fields they are a-changin'. Now it's not the mound and home plate so much as yardlines and goalposts.

One young spring Ted Williams signed this ball for a young fan.


Baseball may define a philosophy. Do you want to win all at once, with a home run; or are you satisfied with winning slowly, advancing the runner, scoring on a sacrifice fly? It may be an indication of wisdom that kids like the big bang and the big inning, whereas older shall we say fans believe the best game is the pitching duel.
    Beating out a slow roller gets you on first base, and with a stolen base and advance on an error, that slow roller looks as good as a triple. With the bases loaded, though, the triple is the thing. (Easily, the triple is the most exciting hit now that the inside-the-park homer is a thing more or less of the past.)
    The pitcher has a simple enough job. Throw strikes or near strikes that get the batter out. You don't have to strike out the batter; in fact, a one-pitch ground-out can't be beat. The simple job, though, is one performed by a player of skill. Four pitches that just miss the strike zone, all taken by the batter, and the batter is grinning at the pitcher with his foot on the bag at first base.
    Walks are bound to happen, and there are times when a walk may be the pitcher's wisest option. The intentional walk can be a defensive move on the part of the pitcher's team. You give the opponent a base in return for putting the pressure on runners, creating a force-out situation. But an intentional pass followed by a hit is like spitting into the wind.
    Baseball is not at all like chess. You can play baseball for the first time without knowing a thing about the game. You just take the field with a glove on one hand or the other, or go up to the plate with a bat, which you will swing from one side or the other. I've never paid much attention to which hand a child uses to hold a crayon, but it's important to see which hand he uses to throw with. How else to know which glove to get-lefty, which is worn on the right hand, or righty worn on the left.
    Also unlike chess, and unlike those clock games football, basketball and hockey, baseball-as the famous philosopher of the game Yogi Berra said in his staggeringly matchless way-"ain't over till it's over." You have a four-run lead in the ninth? Safe? Ha! A six-run lead? Better be ready to play ball still, because the other team still has three outs. Two outs in the ninth, bases empty, two-run lead, one out needed-one strike, even-and the game is over. Relax? There are teams that don't put that final nail in the coffin and discover the postmortem is going to be performed on themselves.
    It is that baseball is theoretically endless that gives it the power to put a spectator totally at ease. We live in a world-the real world of adults and responsibilities-that we love to escape; and the world of escape is the unreal world of, well, children. For many of us the workday is littered with appointments and deadlines and messages to be returned. Enter that free space called baseball and all your sins are forgiven, or if you have no sins, not having that turn of mind, then your humanity has a lighter feel.
    Baseball is not won with poor defense (here it does resemble the game of pawns and queens). That starts with the catcher and the infield. What can a pitcher enjoy more than an inning-ending double play. A one-out bases-loaded liner to third, for example.
    If you want to know why some people are attracted to something, understand why others aren't. The complaint you often hear about baseball is that it's slow. Precisely. There are hour-long games-football, say-that take maybe three hours of your time (three of the best hours, a fan of football will say). Baseball is a three-hour game that takes three hours of your time, but if you're lucky there will be extra innings.

Tom Putnam is a Red Sox fan who knows that Ted Williams was a better hitter than Joe DiMaggio. He will accept arguments at putnam@buffalo.edu.

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