Reflections on Baseball

My first summer of baseball is at an end (although my first October of baseball – not counting 1969, of course), and has left me with a most enjoyable reason to read the sports section when hockey isn’t in season. I learned a lot, enjoyed a lot, made four trips to Dodger Stadium (where I only lost my car once), and even got to see the last few weeks of the season on television, thanks to a switch in television providers. It’s been great fun, and I’m rather amused to find myself in the position of having to explain to other die-hard hockey fans why baseball isn’t the most boring thing in the world.

In not much of an order, here are a few discoveries and observations I have to show for my summer.

I still can’t tell balls from strikes, let alone a curve ball from a sinker. The people who’ve accompanied me to games seem to be able to tell immediately whether a pitch made the strike zone or not; I have to look at the scoreboard. I’ll admit that it’s easier to tell when you’re at a game live and have a seat at a slight angle to home plate that allows you to see the trajectory of the pitch. Not being able to tell balls from strikes also means that you don’t know when a batter has struck out, which can make you feel like something of a dummy. I guess it’ll come with time. Knowing when the puck had been iced took me a while to figure out too.

Corey Seager is a stud. I had his name and number put on the jersey I wear to games, and, unlike some poor choices I initially made with hockey jerseys, I think this one is going to stand me in good stead for quite some time. Seager certainly puts me in good company for what was my rookie season, and, while I can tell that he still has things to learn (when he’s not hitting doubles, he strikes out a lot…so maybe he’s got to learn about that ball/strike thing too), he’s already one heck of a ball player for whom the sky is conceivably the limit. I’ve found that, for my tastes at least, having a favorite player on your team and making him the center of a narrative adds to my enjoyment of the game. The Corey Seager narrative isn’t quite as elaborate as the Kevin Bieksa narrative I’ve put together over the years, but give me time. And give him time as well: at 22, he hasn’t exactly built up a whole lot of narrative from which I can draw.

And, oh yes, he’s like totes adorbs. That’s not what drew him to my attention in the first place (that was because he was a shortstop like Snoopy), but it certainly helps.

Bubble gum costs over a dollar a pack. In an attempt to share in my baseball idol’s narrative, I took a pack of Bubble Yum to the last game I attended. I spent some time at the beginning of the season wondering what it was that young Mr. Seager had in his cheek that made him look like he had a mump. Turns out it’s bubble gum, to which seemingly all the MLB players have switched following the outlawing of chewing tobacco. It’s rather cute to watch grown men blow bubbles (this season, one player even hit a home run while blowing a bubble), and it was marginally amusing to have six pieces of Bubble Yum in my mouth by the time the eighth inning rolled around. (I’d started out with two.)

Bubble gum, which I’d thought was eternal, has changed considerably since I last had a piece: what happened to Bazooka, let alone to Bazooka Joe? I actually Googled “what bubble gum does Corey Seager chew?” and there actually was an answer. There’s a brand called Big League Chew, which caters to baseball players, but which is to be found neither at CVS nor at Target. At least the latter stocks the preferred bubble gum of my teenage years, Bubble Yum. It tasted much as I remembered it, although I’d forgotten how flavorless and rubbery it becomes after a while (which is how I ended up with six pieces in my mouth.) I was also reminded of how blowing bubbles is largely an unconscious act: when you got six pieces of bubble gum in your mouth, you understand how someone could hit a home run when blowing a bubble. (Only subsequently did I realize the potential hazard of having a beard while chewing bubble gum. Even with all those pieces in my mouth, however, I never had a bubble burst on me…and it was a good thing that my buddy sitting next to me didn’t think it would be clever to reach over and pop one.)

Because of the fun factor, I think I can approve of the switch from dip to bubble gum which has taken over Major League Baseball. That is until people start kvetching that baseball is promoting tooth decay to unwitting children.

Sitting Upstairs is Good. I’ve never been an impossible seat snob, but I do know a good seat when I find one, and, over the years, I believe I’ve located the prime locations for sitting in anything from the Metropolitan Opera House (front row of a Grand Tier box as close to the stage as you can get it) to Honda Center (row R as close to the middle as Stub Hub allows.) My good seats don’t usually come cheap (with the possible exception of the Third Ring at the New York State Theater, back when I was spending my summers with the New York City Ballet rather than the Dodgers), but it turns out that the Reserve at Dodger Stadium provides a possibly optimal vantage point from which to view the game. Our row B seats for the game with the bubble gum were at about a 20-degree angle to home plate, and left me with no desire to be further down. From above, you can see the whole game; I’m not sure you can when you’re sitting right behind the dugout.

On the other hand, being almost face-to-face with a bubble-blowing Corey Seager might justify spending more on seats every once in a while.

A further advantage to the Reserve: you’re under the open sky. I wrote at the beginning of my baseball adventures that part of going to a game is the chance to be outside and to enjoy a lovely summer’s day. Sitting with a roof over your head means you’re missing out on that part of the experience.

Baseball players have no clue as to what a fight is all about. I think that there are instances of fisticuffs in baseball (for which you are ejected from the game – the wimps!), but, to a hockey fan, baseball altercations can be mildly embarrassing. The Bubble Gum Game was the one during which Madison Bumgarner hollered “don’t look at me!” at Yasiel Puig. That earned the Giants’ pitcher another shot of the Evil Eye from Puig, which led to all the players from both dugouts meandering onto the field. So a whole bunch of guys gets out there…and then they do nothing. Why bother clearing the benches if you’re not gonna do anything about whatever “it” happens to be? To a hockey fan, the civilized solution would have been for Bumgarner and Puig to drop the gloves and have at each other, thereby settling It.

Puig did, I suppose, get back at Bumgarner: he ordered snarky “#don’tlookatme” T-shirts. (But where did he get custom T-shirts printed overnight??) I suppose it was cute and reasonably amusing, but think how concurrent fighting majors would have saved Puig those overnight shipping charges.

On a related note – i.e. players streaming onto the field in non-hockey fashion – I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with the picture when the Dodgers mobbed Charlie Culberson for his title-winning home run two weeks ago. The team emerged from the dugout, and everyone jumped for joy. Literally. Even when they win the Cup, hockey players don’t jump for joy. I needed a couple seconds to figure out why: triple lutzes notwithstanding, you can’t jump up and down on skates.

Baseball rewards attention. The notion exists that watching baseball is only slightly more entertaining than watching beige paint dry. I will admit that, prior to Seeing the Light, I subscribed to that notion myself. The discovery I made was that baseball is only boring when you’re not concentrating on the game. (Admittedly, there are boring games which reward no amount of mental focus.) If you’ve got the count in your head, waiting for the pitch and the batter’s reaction is really most absorbing. As a friend said to me, what makes baseball so compelling is the possibility of something happening. You’re always waiting for it, whatever it turns out to be. If you’re participating in the anticipation, you’re involved in the game, and, likely, won’t be bored. I realize how new I am to watching baseball, so I suppose I have no choice but to concentrate, but I’ve found that, when I’m too involved in chitter-chatter (or trying to flag down the churro dude), the game becomes less interesting.

Vin Scully is dope. (Which is not at all to say that Mr. Scully is a dope. Far from it.) There has been enormous buzz around town due to the retirement after 67 years of the Voice of the Dodgers. As, until the start of September, I didn’t have the Dodgers available on TV, I wasn’t quite getting why it was such a big deal. On the other hand, I have to admit that, having grown up in this town, I was familiar with Mr. Scully’s voice in spite of myself. It was simply an integral part of Los Angeles’ identity, and being able to recognize the sound of his voice (even when all you knew about the Dodgers was that there was this Steve Garvey person playing for them) was akin to knowing that you take the Santa Ana Freeway to get to Disneyland or that there was a very convenient garage in Beverly Hills at the corner of Beverly Drive and Brighton Way. I’m not sure I even associated the sound of Vin Scully’s voice with the Dodgers. It was just the most easily recognizable voice in town.

We fast-forward to a few weeks ago, when I finally had los Doyers in my living room, and I was able to experience a Vin Scully play-by-play. He really is something special, and you hear it when you compare him to the nattering which goes on when ESPN is broadcasting a game. I read somewhere that one of Vin’s virtues was that he never misses a pitch. He lives up to that, which isn’t so easy, given that baseball is a game without rhythm. He certainly chats with us – that’s one of his glories – but he also doesn’t need to be reminded that there’s a baseball game going on. If I had to choose one word to describe him (and we all know that one-word descriptions aren’t exactly my thing), I’d say “effortless.” Or “seamless.” The talk simply flows from a man who clearly loves his invisible audience, and who talks to us with such natural intimacy. He also pulled off the amazing feat a few weeks ago of describing both the Dodger game we had on TV and the concurrent Giants/Padres game, when the Dodgers had all but won their game and their “magic number” would be affected by who’d won in San Diego. This play-by-play-by-play-by-play would have been a remarkable achievement under any circumstances. What made it terrific in Scully’s hands was that you were never in doubt as to which game he was describing. As a result, you could look at the Dodgers on TV and have a picture of the (hated) Giants and the Padres in your head.

Much as I enjoy John Ahlers’ unique approach to the English language, I never get the feeling that I’m sitting at the game with him. That, however, is just the impression you get from Vin Scully – he’s not just describing the game; he’s describing the game to you. Therein lies the secret, not only to the reverence in which he’s held, but also to the love which was demonstrated during the last weekend of home games, when a Vin Scully Appreciation Weekend was arranged. I said that the endless advertising for the weekend was excessive, but, when the event came ‘round, it managed to live up to its hype.

The Sunday afternoon farewell game turned out to be an experience I will cherish. The baseball gods wanted to smile on their favorite broadcaster, and gave him a gorgeous Southern California afternoon, our usual blue skies maybe even bluer for the occasion. The icing on the cake was that Dodgers managed to sew up the Division Championship by winning the game in the tenth inning. This was the game with Mr. Seager’s bottom-of-the-ninth-two-outs homer, and the one with Charlie Culberson’s similar feat in the tenth. I doubt I’ll forget Scully’s call of the latter. After saying that Culberson was there hoping to keep the inning alive so that the bigger hitters following him could take care of business, Mr. Culberson knocked one out of the park. Vin: “would you believe a home run?”. It’s a catchphrase in the making.

That was followed by the most tasteful farewell performance I’ve ever seen, and one which was all the more moving because of its sheer classiness. I’ve attended my share of farewell performances – I can lay claim to having been there for Suzanne Farrell’s final Vienna Waltzes and for Beverly Sills’ final complete stage performance (as Adele in Fledermaus) in San Diego – and Mr. Scully’s outclassed every one of them. It was simple, tasteful, modest…and also unexpected. I’m not sure anyone could have predicted that he would sing, but that he did, playing an old karaoke version of “The Wind Beneath My Wings” he’d made for his wife a few decades ago. He went out thanking us, his audience, saying in his brief speech that he’d needed us more than we’d needed him. He said it with no suggestion of false modesty, and, with that comment, showed that he understood the lonely world of the broadcaster better than most. The fact is that, without us, he’d have had no one to talk to – and, probably more than any sportscaster ever, it was unquestionably to us that he was talking.

Small wonder he is so loved.

Even classier (if that’s possible) was his sign-off for the game last Sunday, which he called from San Francisco. He simply said, “I’ve talked enough for a lifetime, so let me just wish you a pleasant good afternoon, wherever you are.”

So let me just wish you a pleasant good afternoon. Wherever you are.

 

 

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