Play ball!

Candlestick Park, San Francisco – 1960s

Today is the first day of the Major League Baseball season and as always I’m just a bit melancholy.

Throughout my life I’ve taught myself to treasure my past without clinging to it. Some people can’t let go of their “good old days”. They just seem worn out and refuse to go any farther.

They seem to quit on life before it leaves them.

I’ve worked hard to avoid what I call GOMS, Grumpy Old Man Syndrome. It’s not hard. I’m blessed. I love my life, my family and friends. I love waking up each day.

But every year there is one day, this day, that makes me feel old and frustrated because my body won’t allow me to play the game in my heart.

Baseball is the essence of eternal youth, of fluffy white clouds in March and the smell of freshly cut grass. To play the game, to run and leap and slide in the dirt using muscles that stretch and coil in perfect harmony with young reflexes, is indescribable.

Spring turns to summer and we played daily, all day, until darkness sent us home for a brief time out. In those days tomorrows were endless and each new morning began with a promise of glory.

All the wonderful tributes paid to the game that turns old men into little boys again hurt just a bit. It’s the only time of the year when I am painfully nostalgic for my youth.

I’ll watch the boys of this summer. I’ll remember their skills and hope for them that they love it all as much as I still do.

 

It breaks your heart

A writer who loves baseball must be careful. It’s too easy to slip into flowery purple prose about the game and I’m prone to over-writing.

Besides, the love of baseball has already been written with soul-stirring elegance by the likes of Roger Kahn, Roger Angell, Red Smith, George Will, Jim Murray, Joshua Prager and many others.

This morning I started watching the Ken Burns documentary, Baseball, for the third or fourth time. For reasons I understand in my heart but have trouble putting into words it still chokes me up. I get teary and a lump in my throat. It’s that good, cleansing, happy cry that makes you feel young, fresh and wholesome again.

The memories melt years from my body. I remember how I felt when my legs were lean, springy and swift; when my arms were powerful.

I could smash a fastball to the moon and run like the wind all day with a huge smile on my freckled face.

I can still smell freshly mowed grass under a cool March sky of scooting, fluffy clouds.
 
The base paths are wet from last night’s rain.

One  water-soaked, torn-cover baseball is heaved toward the mud on home plate. I swing the bat held together by glue, nails and electrician’s tape.

Foul ball.

Pitcher and batter make eye contact. Both are determined, both are scared.

See? There I go, pushing the flowery purple envelope. When you love baseball you just can’t help it. It’s a disease you catch as a child and it festers inside you for a lifetime. As the great sports writer Pete Hamill once wrote:

“Don’t tell me about the world. Not today. It’s springtime and they’re knocking baseballs around fields where the grass is damp and green in the morning and the kids are trying to hit the curve ball.”

Pete Hamill has the delicious disease of his youth.

Here are more of my favorite quotes about the game from the men who played it professionally and fed the dreams of the rest of us who imagined we could.

“You can’t sit on a lead and run a few plays into the line and just kill the clock. You’ve got to throw the ball over the goddamn plate and give the other man his chance. That’s why baseball is the greatest game of them all.” – Earl Weaver

“People ask me what I do in winter when there’s no baseball. I’ll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring.” – Rogers Hornsby

“I don’t care how long you’ve been around, you’ll never see it all.” – Bob Lemon

“It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone.” – Bart Giamatti

“During my 18 years I came to bat almost 10,000 times. I struck out about 1,700 times and walked maybe 1,800 times. You figure a ballplayer will average about 500 at bats a season. That means I played seven years without ever hitting the ball.” – Mickey Mantle

“The pitcher has to find out if the hitter is timid. And if the hitter is timid, he has to remind the hitter he’s timid.” – Don Drysdale

“Every player should be accorded the privilege of at least one season with the Chicago Cubs. That’s baseball as it should be played – in God’s own sunshine. And that’s really living.” – Alvin Dark

“You gotta be a man to play baseball for a living but you gotta have a lot of little boy in you, too.” – Roy Campanella

“When they start the game they don’t yell, ‘Work Ball!” They say, ‘Play ball!” – Willie Stargell

“You see, you spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball, and in the end it turns out it was the other way around all the time.” – Jim Bouton, Ball Four