Sunday, July 17, 2011

The National Pastime

I recently overheard a conversation between two of my co-workers. They were lamenting about the lack of on-field fireworks that occurred during last week's Baseball All-Star Game.

They believed that baseball was doomed in this country.

They couldn't possibly be more wrong.

Baseball is unique among all other sports. It is the one sport where every single statistic is computed to the third decimal. It is the one sport where hitting only 3 out of every ten balls thrown at you in the right place makes you an All-Star. It is the one sport where players willingly stand with a piece of wood in their hands and face hard objects hurled at them at speeds often greater than 90 miles per hour.

And it is the one sport where it is easy to realize very early in life that you have absolutely no talent for. This realization came to yours truly about the tender age of 8 or 9. It was when I realized that I had absolutely no ability to hit a thrown baseball. Or catch one. Or throw one with any degree of accuracy.

The only skill I was able to contribute to my little league team was my ability to get on base. Y'see, I was (and still am) short, so my strike zone was so tiny that few pitchers in my league could find it. So, most of the time, I would simply stand at the plate, take four pitches as balls, and be on first. I would then immediately steal second, then third, in short order (I was small, but I could run like hell. It helped me escape bullies.) I would be in scoring position in the space of two pitches. The only times I ever struck out was when I actually swung at a pitch.

It takes a special kind of talent to hit a baseball. You have to be able to see a mud-covered (look it up) baseball traveling at you at 90+ miles per hour, from a height of about 2 feet above you. You have less than half a second to determine if said baseball is going to be in an area where you have a reasonably good chance of making contact if you swing at it.

I don't have that talent. I never did, despite the efforts of my little league coaches. The sort of talent required to do that on a regular basis does not exist in 99,999 out of 100,000 people. Maybe more. It's something you are blessed with from birth. Practice helps, but it can only hone what talent already exists. The minor leagues of baseball are filled with people who are almost talented enough to accomplish this feat. I see many of them every time I attend a Mud Hens game.

Which brings me, in my usual extreme roundabout way, to my point: The aforementioned co-workers were lamenting that being a great baseball player is something kids in this country don't look forward to any more.

The refutation of that thought can be found in the tiny town of Blissfield, Michigan, and the surrounding areas.

Blissfield is a tiny town. So is just about every single town around it. And yet, the Blissfield Royals high school baseball team wins. A lot.

Baseball is cyclical. It always goes through periods of pitching dominating hitting, and vice versa. This past Friday I witnessed a Mud Hens game that was an extreme pitching duel, until one swing of a bat (a grand slam home run) changed the entire game (Unfortunately, the wrong team got the winning hit. But that's another story.)

Baseball has earned its appellation as the National Pastime. It has weathered scandal after scandal. It has had its highs and lows. People scorn players accused of doping. Yet they worship players like Babe Ruth. By all accounts, Ruth was a drunk and a boor. And yet he is held up as the gold standard of baseball players, even though Hank Aaron, who broke Ruth's MLB home run record after playing in the Negro League before being signed in the MLB.

And it may be true that baseball has lost some of its sparkle lately. But it will always be there. Take a 20 minute drive along the streets of any major city, and tell me if you don't see at least 5 baseball fields.

Baseball is a sport that is unique to this country. And don't try to tell me that it evolved from Cricket. I've seen Cricket matches, and they're not even close.

Baseball will survive. It may go through rough patches over the years, but it will still be there.

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