Kid’s Got Game

17
June

KID’S   GOT   GAME

There was no doubt who I’d be rooting for when I arrived to watch Drew, my ten-year-old grandson play in a baseball game.  It was a first for me so I wasn’t sure what to expect as I settled into a chair behind a chain link fence, just a few yards away from first base where he was positioned.  He observed my presence, but offered no acknowledgement:  He was all business, nothing personal,

Now, ten-year-olds playing baseball leave much to be desired.  You might say that their efforts merely resembled baseball.  The “rules” confirm that.  No more than five runs can be scored in any one inning; pitchers are limited to thirty-six pitches and the game ends after six innings.

If this particular game was any indication ten-year-old pitchers have considerable difficulty throwing the baseball anywhere near the plate.  As a result the umpire must be exceptionally tolerant when defining the strike zone.  As it was, game “action” primarily consisted of a procession of walks and strikeouts.  Batters did on occasion make contact, but that’s when other problems surfaced.  Fielders were notably limited in their ability to field.  A majority of ground balls were bobbled while fly balls became unpredictable adventures for the outfielders.  Furthermore, runners reaching first inevitably made it to second base on “steals.”  Still there were positive interludes.  Every so often ground balls would be fielded cleanly and thrown to first for the out.  One or two fly balls actually were caught (although, in one instance, the outfielder seemed truly startled when the ball somehow landed in his outstretched glove).

Noteworthy also was the manner in which players conducted themselves, reproducing postures and gestures clearly derived from watching major leaguers.  They crouched expectantly and pounded their gloves while awaiting the pitch and a possible play coming their way.  They blurted out encouraging words of infield chatter, and whipped their bats energetically just before stepping into the batter’s box.  Prior to the start of each half inning, infielders tossed the ball around with flair and finesse, even practiced executing double plays (a highly improbable happening during the actual game).

Now for the most pleasant surprise – my grandson.  No, he wasn’t ready for a call-up to the Majors, but he acquitted himself exceptionally well.  At the plate he made contact all three times at bat, in one instance hitting the ball well into the outfield.  (He also “hit the deck” most expertly when a pitch came perilously close to his head.)  He fielded his position flawlessly, made an accurate throw to the plate on a relay from the outfield and slid gracefully into third on a hit ball.  Because pitchers are rotated after 36 pitches, he was sent to the mound in “relief” where, unlike his predecessor who couldn’t locate the plate, he was on target, walked no one, and struck out several.  Not a bad day’s work I’d say (though you may choose to discount some of this scouting report, given my connection to the subject).

Two final observations.  Sitting nearby me was the father of one of the ten-year-old players who was experiencing total futility at the plate, swinging and missing time and again.  The father took him aside and urged him to keep his weight back, lock in on the ball, head still, etc.  Comes his last time at bat Raymond is at the plate, with the bases loaded.  As usual he swings and misses – strike one.  Strike two follows – predictably a swing and a miss.  I’m feeling terrible:  the father appears resigned to yet another failure, a third strikeout.  Then the miracle.  The pitch arrives, Raymond takes a healthy cut, makes contact and sends the ball bouncing through the infield.  Raymond has his hit and rbi’s.  I applaud loudly and offer congratulations to Raymond’s dad, obviously relieved and elated at this unexpected turn of events.

As I’m leaving, another game is underway on an adjoining field.  These kids are older, sixth graders I’m told.  Quite a difference.  The pitches are coming in hard and on target, batters swinging and making solid contact.  It seems close to the way baseball should be played.

So, now I have something to look forward to.

Richard Skolnik

May 25, 2015

. . . AT THE OLD BALL GAME

26
August

My friend Len and I decided to catch the Pittsfield Suns at Wahconah Park in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.  But, when we arrived for the 7PM starting time it was announced there’d be a delay until the sun sank below the outfield trees so as not to blind the batters at the plate.  (In 1919 when the stadium was constructed no one imagined there’d be night games, so it mattered little how the field was laid out.  The first baseball game under the lights did not take place until 1935.)

Everything here smacked of old fashioned, down home, basic baseball.  Parking in the surrounding grass field wherever there was a spot – there’d be no charge.  (Problem was, it had rained recently and the field resembled a World War I trench warfare battle scape – and without lights – totally dark.)  Admission – two prices.  Five dollars got you general entry; nine dollars for box seats.  We asked for box seats.  “Sorry”, we were told.  “Big crowd tonight.  Last game of the season, and the Suns have a shot at the playoffs.  We don’t have two seats together.”  So we each plunked down a five spot and were soon sitting amidst the “people”.

The sun did cooperate, the game beginning around 7:30.  This was the Futures Collegiate Baseball League, so these fellows were all college players, young men eager to hone their skills, hoping there’d be a future for them in the sport.  Indeed, the play was solid, the level of skills on display noteworthy.  Still, this was far from being “the Big Show”.  At the very outset we stood for a straightforward, no frills rendition of the Star Spangled Banner.  Only two umpires patrolled the field (though with considerable finesse and authority).  Moreover, from time to time the home plate umpire was obliged to pivot around and head off to retrieve a foul ball that had come to rest near the backstop,.  And regrettably, midway through the game, the scoreboard went out of kilter, forcing the public address announcer to keep track of balls and strikes for the fans.

The most delightful and memorable aspect of the night was the crowd – over 4,000 spectators were reported to be on hand.  Town folk  had come for the game, I’m sure – the Suns, after all, were battling for a playoff berth – but it seemed clear that the primary motivation of most was to enjoy an inexpensive night out (beer $3.50, hot dogs $2) and be with family and friends together with other local folks,  There were mothers carrying infants in slings, holding babies, fathers with their kids in tow, grandparents with grandchildren, middle-aged couples sitting with friends, teenagers out on dates and clusters of adolescent girls flitting here and there, most just hanging out, just beyond the main gate near the concession stands.

People did watch the game and were kept involved, thanks to the continuous blare of pre-recorded “motivational sounds”.  (Unfortunately the Suns fell behind early and were never able to recover, losing 6-1.)  However, they were there mostly, it seemed, to socialize and just relax.  The two women in front of me never once, as far as I could tell, looked toward the field of play.  A teenage boy sitting next to me spent most of the time peering at his phone, although he explained he’d come to Wahconah instead of just hanging with his buddies who were out drinking.

There was no lack of fan entertainment.  For example, between innings a youngster was escorted to home plate, dusting it off with an immense toothbrush.  The interval between each inning was filled with one daffy contest after another involving kids spinning tires across the infield, tossing “toilet seats” shaped like horseshoes, running with leaky water pitchers and racing to a finish line aboard inflated figures, etc.

But what really got the crowd to its feet was the joyous singing of “Take me Out to the Ballgame”, followed a bit later by an ear splitting, rollicking rendition of “Sweet Caroline”.  In both instances nearly everyone was on their feet, singing, clapping, gyrating – having a grand old time.

The Suns lost (though they still backed into the playoffs), but no one appeared upset.  Everything else had gone just fine.  Pleasant summer evening, a flow of dogs, drinks and snacks, families together, friends nearby and conversations aplenty.  (In baseball there’s lots of time for that.)  Sitting there that night I could understand why baseball had been our national pastime all those many years.

DIFFERENT STROKES

29
July

There’s nothing like it in the world of big time high stakes sports.  Take in the finals of a tennis Grand Slam tournament, say Wimbledon or the US Open. Observe the two combatants on center court slugging it out under circumstances that make tennis singles at this level quite unlike any other sport.

The two athletes are out there alone, no teammates alongside them.  They enter the arena separately; each heads to a bench where they sit alone apart from one another.  When changing sides during the match they take different paths and carefully avoid eye contact.  They do not communicate with one another (though they will on occasion, by gesture, acknowledge an exceptional shot by their opponent).

On the tournament circuit, tennis, somewhat inexplicably, is the only sport where coaches are barred from the field of play (a boxer can speak with his or her manager at ringside, a golfer with his or her caddy) and from offering advice and devising strategies as the match progresses.  In tennis, coaches are exiled to the grandstand, limited to applauding great shots and, through other gestures, urging their charges on.  It’s all on each player to plot their own tactics, to reset when necessary and devise ways to counter moves by their opponent.  Here is uncompromised individualism.

FAN FAVORS

17
July

When we were kids we went to the ballpark with our gloves on hoping that lightening would strike and we’d catch a baseball.  What a delicious prospect – to see a game and get a fabulous free souvenir, ours to cherish.  And on occasion it happened, if not to us then to a buddy sitting alongside.  It felt almost as good.  At hockey games that chance for a lucky catch also was there.  Of course you could keep the ball or the puck.  As a spectator you were entitled to go home with this treasure.  Was it generosity or just good public relations?  Maybe it was simply too difficult or time consuming to get them back.  Such of course is not the case with a basketball.  Should you by chance be sitting near courtside and a loose ball alights on your lap there’s no way you’re going to make off with it.  Your reward?  Simply the opportunity to throw it back into the game or the privilege of handing it to one of the players (enjoying at the same time a fleeting appearance on the TV screen).  In a football game forget about catching the pigskin.  Nets have in recent years been drawn up behind the goalposts to snare balls sent flying past the uprights for extra points or field goals.  And in golf, a ball off course and heading into the gallery must, at all costs, not be touched.

So what’s the difference between pucks and baseballs and basketballs and footballs?  The former are small, the latter big.  More to the point, baseballs and pucks are relatively inexpensive, not so basketballs and footballs.  No matter that professional sports operate well in the black, no need to be profligate.  OK, but how then explain tennis balls?  They’re small, don’t cost very much, still fans are expected to and nearly always throw them back.  Could it be the upscale crowds at matches find it inconvenient to cram balls into the pockets of tailored trousers, or is it that these folks are above such petty acquisitiveness?

PARTISAN SPORTS

15
July

Conservative fixture George Will talking sports on the Charlie Rose Show acknowledged that he normally roots for teams that make “Liberals uncomfortable”.  Elaborating, he observed how unlikely it was that he’d support teams from New York or Boston given the liberal proclivities of those two metropolitan areas.

How does one determine team support based largely on political affiliation?  Professional team owners are rich and likely to be conservatively inclined.  Could that be a significant factor in rooting preferences?.  People of color (most likely Democrats) are prominent in several sports, so would Conservatives be less inclined to support certain teams?  Would not Liberals reject teams they observed huddling for prayer before or after a game? Would  they not be uncomfortable with quarterback Tim Tebow for his public professions of religious devotion?  And what about players who make the sign of the cross or point to heaven on the field of play or kneel down in the end zone upon scoring a touchdown?  Would this action make Liberals uneasy?

Although Will did not elaborate, one can assume that his loyalties would depend on whether teams were located in Red or Blue states.  With this frame of reference, which teams would likely most “offend” Liberals?  Surely those from Teas, where conservative roots run deep.  More broadly, Liberals would likely root against teams from the South, a region located in the grip of right wingers.  The same would be true of teams from Arizona where Governor Jan Brewer and Phoenix sheriff Joe Arpaio have long aroused Liberal ire.  Then there is Wichita, Kansas, home to the Wichita State basketball team and to Koch Industries.  Surely the team’s success in 2013/2014 did not sit well with Liberal sports fans.  They also had reason to oppose teams from states like North Carolina and Wisconsin where Republican governors have eagerly embraced Conservatve agendas (and on the other hand to support teams from such Liberal bastions as Massachusetts, New York, Connecticut and California).

All of this is decidedly silly, if for no other reason that most athletes are typically apolitical (with notable exceptions such as Bill Bradley, Jim Bunning, Gerald Ford, J.C. Watts, Jack Kemp, etc.)  What Will’s remarks reveal, however, is just how polarized political identities have become when each score, each win or loss is viewed through the lens of political advantage or retribution.

Most all fans are highly partisan but it is team, not party, loyalty that explains their devotion and that stokes their passions.

IMAGINE II

10
July

Here’s an opportunity for sports fans of all stripes to indulge their fantasies.  Sports cartoons have a  long honorable history both celebrating and satirizing athletes and the games they’ve played.  Typically, the illustration and the caption combine to express the creator’s offbeat viewpoint.  In this instance, we take you half way; supplying the script and encouraging you to consider possible visuals.

Gomez, winning big in a bullpen poker game, has Donnelly pitch for him in top of the ninth.

Crawford, after an egregious error in the outfield, replaced by fan coming out of the grandstand.

Johnson pulls off track into pit to take cell phone call. Continue reading

IMAGINE I

24
June

Here’s an opportunity for sports fans of all stripes to indulge their fantasies.  Sports cartoons have a  long honorable history both celebrating and satirizing athletes and the games they’ve played.  Typically, the illustration and the caption combine to express the creator’s offbeat viewpoint.  In this instance, we take you half way; supplying the script and encouraging you to consider possible visuals.

Judges flummoxed as Edson, riding his winged horse, easily clears hurdles.

Coach Fairbanks sends his entire squad out for goal line stand.

Joey Barnum picked off during friendly chat with first baseman. Continue reading

BASEBALL CLASSICS

20
May

Fans and students of baseball are ever eager to explain what they most enjoy about the game.  Some point to tension-packed pitching duels or explosive slugfests; others savor exquisitely choreographed double plays, perfectly executed squeeze bunts or simply the leisurely passage of sun-drenched afternoon games.  There’s much to choose from.  Yet few, if any, are likely to mention, though they are certainly not unaware of just how visually riveting the game can be.  Ironically these moments are best experienced while watching a game on a television screen (which is immediately reinforced by continuous replays), especially when cameras capture close-up action with an intimacy stadium spectators rarely experience.

While almost any play can result in a compelling stop action visual, there’s an abundance of readily recognizable favorites.  Observe the picture taken from center field of the scene at home plate just as a ball is delivered.  Featured here is a partially erect hitter, awaiting the pitch, a faceless catcher in squatting position, his outstretched mitt a target for the pitcher and an umpire also obscured by face mask, leaning as far forward as he dares in order to pass judgment on the incoming delivery.  Frozen for an instant, this sculpture-like arrangement stands perhaps as the sport’s most iconic image.

The ball may then be struck and sent sailing toward the bleachers, prompting the outfielder to race to where he hopes it will descend.  But before it carries over the wall, he leaps, glove fully extended, in an effort to prevent a home run.  This thrilling instant, when ball and fielder arrive simultaneously, produces one of baseball’s classic snapshots.

Collisions, not central features of the game, nevertheless consistently supply us with memorable game portraits.  We can expect one when a base runner heading home prepares to maul the catcher, dislodge the ball and grab for the plate.  This results in an eye-catching image of baseball at its most physically confrontational.  Quite different are the furious exchanges that erupt between managers and umpires which, though highly stylized, appear headed toward a violent conclusion.  The scene opens with the manager storming out of the dugout and rushing toward the offending umpire.  Heated discussion quickly escalates into a fierce shouting match.  Such scenes offer us a dramatic close-up of the two combatants, heads but inches apart, screaming directly at each other, a picture of verbal fireworks no other sport can match.

Finally, we note how changes in the way baseball is played have yielded striking game action pictures.  Outfielders have become more athletic than ever.  Watch as they race toward the ball, then, in full stride, leave their feet and in flight parallel to the turf, make the catch and eventually skid to a stop.  Such spectacular maneuvers have been captured and shown repeatedly for TV viewers.  As so has the recently perfected technique that many shortstops employ on a ball hit deep into the hole.  Snaring it, and with their backs to first base, they leap high into the air, twist their bodies and at the same time snap a throw to first base.  It doesn’t always arrive on time, but capturing baseball’s most balletic moves have assured its standing as a visual staple of the game.

As each season begins, fans prepare to get behind their favorites and, at the same time, look forward to those treasured visual highlights that engage their imaginations and affirm their affection for the game.

DRIVING AND DRINKING IN THE GAME

8
May

For numerous members of the male species there are few more undiluted delights than driving along and listening to a ballgame on the car radio.  Better by far than tuning in at home there encountering the inevitable distractions likely to diminish the pleasure, mostly in the form of pointed reminders about more productive tasks awaiting your attention.  Listening in a car carries few such burdens and entails far less guilt.  After all just by driving, you’re being productive.  And positioned in the driver’s seat you’re also entitled, by custom and proximity, to your own programming preferences.

What is it that makes taking in a game on a car radio so thoroughly pleasurable?  Surely it must have something to do with being able to concentrate and devote your full attention to the play-by-play. At home that is not always possible. There to deflect guilt you’re likely, during the course of a game, to squeeze in an occasional chore or two, like clearing the dishes, straightening up or disposing of the garbage.  In the car no such evidence of domestic responsibility need be displayed.  Nor are you obligated to pay much attention to or converse with anyone — your principal task is to concentrate on the road.  But with driving largely automatic you’re essentially left free to soak up and revel in descriptions of the game and imaginatively enter onto the field of play and into the action.

But let’s not ignore certain problems.  Who has not suffered through the intermittent interference in reception that disrupts accounts of the game? Drive through a tunnel and expect the sound virtually to disappear.  Approach a stretch of overhead power lines and brace yourself for a barrage of headache-inducing static.  These interruptions, if brief, may be tolerable, if prolonged can represent hateful intrusions.  And expect, as countless drivers have confirmed, the sound to fracture or fail during crucial moments of a game.

Driving, you must also remember, may take you some distance from your original point of departure.  And, as is well understood, radio signals will vary in strength and clarity as you tool along an ever-changing and irregular landscape.  Expect therefore the sound to fade in and out and occasionally disappear.  It may even, toward the end of a lengthy trip, be replaced entirely by signals from a neighboring station on the radio dial.  Sad indeed is the sight of a driver attempting to decipher the occasional and barely intelligible garble of what was once clearly audible play-by-play coverage as the car passes totally out of station range.  (Prompting some sport fans especially when driving alone or with other male companions to pull off the road in order to hear a critical portion of the contest before the signal totally disappears.)

Finally, and at times regrettably, the trip ends.  But what of the game? If still in progress and the outcome in doubt the problem becomes one of transition, (after, that is, remaining in the car as long as possible before exiting — including sending passengers ahead with the assurance you will soon catch up with them.)  The challenge is how to get from the car to your destination and quickly locate a radio or TV there so as to keep abreast of developments, most especially the outcome. But as this discussion is about cars, we need not pursue the matter beyond this point.  Be assured, though, such folks will not lose sight of their priorities and will somehow see to it that they miss out on very little of the action.

 

TALK A GOOD GAME

22
April

New York Giant field goal specialist Josh Brown revealed recently what goes on as he sets up for the kick, highlighting the game within the game that, regrettably, most fans miss.

“There are always guys across the line who know you and they start
talking about your ex-girlfriend, your ex-wife, your current wife, your kids –
Just about anything they can think of to get you out of that moment.  You’re
out there waiting to set up, and the whole time somebody is talking to you,
Somebody is yelling at you or insulting you or trying to get you to laugh.”

The fact is that in most professional sports those competing against each other are also communicating, often in ways similar to what Brown describes.  But most all of this verbal jousting is not heard, except by the players.  And that’s a pity.  What fan wouldn’t want to be let in on this talk show?

Fans are catered to in all sorts of ways in recent years.  New stadiums have popped up across the United States.  Repeated replays of game action available on huge screens above the field of play and on home screens have enabled them to dissect every move and to savor memorable moments.  There are live broadcasts in abundance, to the point that any contest of significance is covered one way or another.  In addition, there’s increased emphases on getting “up close and personal.”  Analysts in the broadcasting booth attempt to provide expert insight into what’s happening while reporters on or near the field bring viewers into pregame locker room rituals and pep talks, roam along the sidelines and question celebrities who happen to be part of the crowd.  Moreover, there have been some efforts to present “real” exhcanges among players and coaches.  While “authentic”, they fall far short of delivering much of substance or interest.  Questioning coaches as they’re leaving the field at half time yields little more than boilerplate.  “Miking” a player for a time adds a bit more spice and “reality”, but fails to capture any of the game talk that fans would find riveting.

The possibilities are downright mind boggling.  Transmitting “trash talk” would be a “must” (and should include what fans in the stands are saying to players as well).  Players especially in basketball and football are ever taunting their opponents, attempting to distract, anger or goad them into retaliating and being penalized.  Baseball catchers are well known for their propensity to engage batters in conversation.  Some of it is doubtless friendly chatter, but on other occasions it’s a deliberate effort to make batters lose concentration.

Which reminds us that baseball proceeds at a leisurely pace; there’s plenty of time and opportunity for opposing team members to converse.  And they do.  After a player hits the ball safely, and whatever base he reaches, he will likely begin talking to the opposing player nearby.  What are they chatting about – food, family, finances?  Who knows?  What are players in the dugout saying to each other, or the hitting coach to the batter due up at the plate?  More significantly, what’s the conversation about on the mound when infielders and the manager are discussing the next move?  And in the most classic of “chit-chats”, what heated words are managers and umpires exchanging as they angrily jaw, almost mouth to mouth, in what is perhaps the most dramatic of duels in all of sports.

Want to hear what’s going on in a football huddle, or along the sideline as the coach plots out the next pick and roll to the basket, or along third base where the coach is preparing the runner for a suicide squeeze play.  Well, you’ll hear none of this.  Professional sports have declared all this to be out of bounds, off limits.  Fans are not entitled to eavesdrop.

An argument can be made that doing so would change the game, interfere with the way it’s been played.  But  all of them have changed over the years.  And remember, sports are all about entertainment.  So why not make it more enjoyable and  bring fans closer to the action.

Let’s talk about it.