"Baseball, it is said, is only a game. True. And the Grand Canyon is only a hole in Arizona. Not all holes, or games, are created equal." Attributed to George Will.
When I was eleven, my favorite Christmas present was "The Big Book of Baseball." I can't remember if this was the exact title, and I can't remember the author. But I remember how I loved it. I got up at five a.m. December 25 and had the entire book read by dinner-time, which since it was Christmas, was around 2.
The names rolled off the tongue: the Georgia Peach, Double XX, Big Train, the Iron Horse, the Bambino, The Splendid Splinter. Matthewson, Young, Feller, Berra, Koufax, Mantle, Seaver. Murderer's Row*, Dem Bums, the Gashouse Gang. The Senators, "first in war, first in peace, last in the American League."
Baseball was one of the holy sporting triumvirate: baseball, football and horseracing. I could be on occasion talked into watching basketball (especially the Celtics), and I watched every minute of every Olympics. But professional ice hockey? What's that?
St. Petersburg did not have a team, which allowed for a lot of flexibility in which team you could adopt as your own. My father was a Braves fan, and a Red Sox fan; my mother's family were Reds fans. (My mother herself did not care about sporting events, period. When she did become interested, it was in football, and that mainly so that she could watch the Buccaneers play with my dad. My siblings didn't care about baseball either.)
I was a rebel: I was in love with the Mets. I had classmates who felt similarly; years later, one of my friend Lisa's prized possessions was a bat signed by Sid Fernandez -- who would two seasons later play a pivotal role in Game Seven of the 1986 World Series.** I had a brief detour, to my father's everlasting dismay, into rooting
for the Dodgers based mainly on their past history in Brooklyn
-- a history that had ended four years before I was born.
At one point, I could name every member of the 1969 and 1973 Met teams. I loved them because of their checkered past, because they could be so unpredictable. (No, we will not talk about 2007. Completely off limits.) I rejoiced for all of forty-eight hours before finding out that Sidd Finch was a hoax.***
When I married, it was a mixed household: a Mets fan and a Braves fan, each of whom detested the other's teams. We agreed on liking the Red Sox and, later, when we had moved to the West Coast, the As, and in hating the Yankees.
In 1989, I went to two playoff games -- As against Blue Jays -- and two Series games -- As against Giants. I had tickets to two more, but the Loma Prieta quake and an As sweep (which I have always felt was a result of the Giants being demoralized by the quake) ended that.
Then I had kids. Kids take time, and my thoughts turned to more mundane matters. The baseball season I became most invested in involved children under 13. Games became more and more expensive to go to, especially with a family of five, and my kids didn't particularly care for watching sports anyway. I did go to the occasional As game (before it was renovated to suit the Raiders, the Oakland Coliseum was one of the loveliest fields in the majors), and I went to one Giants game where Railfan sang with a choral group he was involved with.
I would still catch the playoffs and the Series, but the passion, the immediacy, had abated. I had a new team, the [Devil] Rays****, but they were on the other side of the country, and even though I loved them, I found them difficult to follow. This was especially true during the first ten years of their existence, when they were consistently the worst team in baseball -- frequently challenging the worst season record mark. They were not merely bad but execrable. Newspapers in the Bay Area only covered them when they were playing (and usually losing to) the As.
The last couple of years, though, with the kids mostly grown and the summers seeming less crowded, I have started following the sport again. That the Rays made the Series a few seasons back (and the playoffs last year) didn't hurt either.
Then this past week I started watching Ken Burns' Baseball. It is marvelous. It is hearing once again about all the names I learned growing up. It is seeing the history that once meant so much to me.
It is love rediscovered after long absence.
I can hardly wait to see where this season goes.
*When I discuss my loss on Jeopardy!, it is always in baseball terms. Losing to Ken Jennings, I say, is like losing to the 1927 Yankees: you lost to the best, there's no shame in that, but you still lost.
**Yes, there was a Game Seven. I promise not to go into my "It's not Buckner's fault" rant, especially since I've already done that.
***For those unfamiliar with this gem, in 1985 George Plimpton and Sports Illustrated executed one of the best April Fool's Day hoaxes ever, with a story about a fictitious miracle pitcher for the Mets named Sidd Finch. (I have always held that they chose the Mets because the Mets were -- and are -- the only franchise screwy enough to spend time and money on an untried unknown from Harvard who allegedly learned to pitch in a Tibetan monastery.) The cover date -- April 1 -- was supposed to be a clue, but subscribers got their copies the weekend before they hit the newsstands, and I never checked the date. It wasn't until somebody pointed out that the initial letters of the first words of Plimpton's story spelled "Happy April Fool" that I got it. It was completely brilliant, although it took me two decades to forgive either the writer or the magazine.
****I am still miffed that they changed the name, even though that coincided with an improvement in their baseball fortunes. "Rays" is generic -- it could be a team anywhere. "Devil Rays" is pure Florida, as much a marker of their home territory as "Marlins" or "Padres" or, to draw from another sport, "Packers." My Rays hat is one with the original design, with the fish on it.