At age 12, I could throw a baseball hard, but not straight. This made me a fearsome presence on the Little League mound for reasons other than my won-lost record. I pitched a no-hitter that year. I walked about 15 and beaned half a dozen, and lost the game something like 6-0. But it was a no-hitter all the same, and it remains to this day a delectable memory.
It seems to me I can still smell the damp, freshly mown infield grass and the oiled leather of my Rich Rollins autographed glove. I can still feel the eyes of six or seven parental spectators riveted upon me — eyes wide with either admiration, as I thought then, or stark horror, as I think now.
I can still hear the umpire’s involuntary groans after many of my pitches. Our volunteer umps called balls and strikes from behind the pitcher, not the catcher, a sensible response to the erratic play of both ends of our batteries.
And I can still see the opposing sluggers, oversized helmets flopping from side to side on their heads like tolling bells as they cringed and quivered in the batter’s box.
I last excavated images from that afternoon of an American boy in an essay for another publication 30 years ago this spring. A peculiar timelessness is one baseball’s many distinctive charms. Something classic and changeless in the stately, civilized pace of the game and its summerlong seasons allows thinking about it to somehow blur all the troubles and triumphs and tedium that separate the stages of our lives.
The wild, 12-year-old flamethrower and the nostalgic memoirist approaching 40 were fully united on that pitching mound, and it remains today one of those felt experiences of childhood that are easier to remember than yesterday.
Naturally, beyond a touch of spring fever on this official first weekend of summer, and an accompanying need to take a break from frivolous issues of politics and public policy, it’s the Twins who have me indulging daydreams about baseball. The Twins, maybe the best team in baseball this spring. Break up the Twins!
Talk about nostalgia, it is roughly three decades since the Twins last brought home a World Series Championship. And of course we don’t expect that this year — haughty expectations ill-fit the least swaggering of sports. But the mere possibility is as welcome and wondrous as the approach of June.
For me, vivid baseball memories reach back a half-century and more. At 14, I found a pretty good imitation of paradise as an usher at the old Metropolitan Stadium. I made $4.50 a game, and I was worth it, seating and assisting fans whenever I could tear myself away from the Olympus-like wonders on the field.
I remember the Twins’ 1967 season particularly. It was Rod Carew’s rookie season, a great year for Jim Kaat, Tony Oliva and Jim Perry. The Twins lost the pennant on the season’s last day.
I “met” Rocky Colavito that season, and Sandy Koufax and Pee Wee Reese, too, while serving as their errand boy during a television broadcast. And I “met” Mickey Mantle, having retrieved for him a milestone home-run ball.
Moses descending Mount Sinai was no more awestruck than I was after those encounters.
Many writers, moved to wax philosophic about baseball, slip carelessly into an almost religious tone and vocabulary. I am one of those writers. But I mean no disrespect to either religion or baseball. It’s just that a baseball game is a ritual, a kind of ceremony, dramatizing fears, hopes and struggles common to humankind — the fear of striking out (with runners on base), the hope of hitting one out of the park, the struggle just to stay in the game.
All sports, of course, from tennis to bullfighting, serve this mythological function. Baseball is more religious than most because of its wholesome emphasis on two virtues — consistency and justice.
Football, it’s been said, is a corporate, even military game — bursts of belligerent action alternating with meetings. Basketball is all showy improvisation, an athletic jazz festival.
Baseball hails from an earlier, slower-paced culture; it is a game of open spaces, endless summer days, a season like a little lifetime. There are no undefeated baseball teams, or anything like it. The very best hitters fail two times out of three; the finest teams lose four games out of 10. Consistency — a player’s “average” — is everything.
Consider the fastidiousness of baseball statistics: If an infielder boots a ground ball, he is charged with an “error,” but only after the “official scorer” determines that he should have made the play. The statistics are then adjusted so that the batter receives no more credit for reaching base, and the pitcher no more blame for letting him reach base, than if the batter had been thrown out. Any runs the error causes are recorded for posterity as “unearned” runs.
No other game bothers with such fine moral distinctions. Not even all other religions do.
Back when my piety was at its fiery peak, unsatiated by witnessing some 60 big-league games a year, I took up with a passion Strat-O-Matic, a simple but marvelous board game in those prehistoric, predigital times that is still around, online of course.
The “original fantasy sports game,” as it now dubs itself, reduced baseball to its cerebral essence, representing each player with, back then, a paper card that, with the help of dice throws, reproduced each player’s skill as a batter, fielder or pitcher with impressive accuracy, right down to inexplicable slumps and hot streaks. A terrifying portion of my adolescence — whole summers — was poured into playing and keeping detailed (impeccably fair) statistics on this purely intellectualized form of baseball.
It is one of the fascinations of baseball that it can be distilled so well to the bare abstract facts — a line drive to left, a drag bunt down the first-base line — with little loss of vividness. The actual physical movements of the players, while beautiful to watch, are so iconic, so easily mimicked by the mind’s eye, that they are in a sense unnecessary. This is why baseball appeals so to writers, why the game has a literature, and it is why baseball plays so well on the radio. Radio basketball and football fare much less well; radio tennis or bullfighting are out of the question.
Early in his career as an entertainer, former President Ronald Reagan worked as an announcer doing radio broadcasts of baseball games he wasn’t watching, simply adding sound effects and imagination to telegraphed play-by-play facts.
None of the old-time listeners cared that such announcers were making it all up as they went, and it turned out to be good training for the presidency.
D.J. Tice is at Doug.Tice@startribune.com.