I’ve played a bit of baseball in my time. I think I may have told you in a previous post that when I was in Little League old men would ask me to autograph baseballs on the off chance that I would actually amount to something other than a manager at a hospital. I guess the joke’s on them. I imagine those signed balls being passed down from generation to generation without the giver having any idea why. Then again, maybe not.
I played baseball from the time I could walk until just after my 21st birthday. I was the classic product of the big, farm-raised fish in the small stock pond of life and once I got into the actual Pacific ocean of wild fish, it turns out that I was just pretty darned average. My natural good looks and athletic ability (I had plenty of the latter and very little of the former) only fed my ever expanding ego, but never met with the requirement to actually work hard in order to succeed. I had the desire, but not the work ethic to advance to the next level.
So I always have mixed emotions when I watch a live, professional baseball game. On the one hand, I still feel like I could have made it had I tried harder, but on the other hand I thank God that I didn’t and especially so after watching many of the fans at Spring Training last week in Scottsdale.
My dad brought my sister, my mom and me to Scottsdale in 1974 to watch the Chicago Cubs Spring Training. I have some very vivid memories about the trip, but most of the other details are lost to time. I saw Hank Aaron play (he popped up in his only at bat), got Don Dreysdale’s autograph (I still have no idea who he is) and had my picture taken with a ballplayer whom I don’t now recognize. I also remember my dad interviewing a carpet layer in our hotel room. Dad always said that you could tell the measure of a man by how calloused his hands were and I was dying to know if the man had rough hands. Dad said he did. Weird what my mind recalls.
We stayed at the Camelback Inn and I ate t-bone steak and dipped my crusty french bread in the stewed juices of dead snails. Never had the body fluids of a mollusc tasted so sweet. I swam in the pool, got sunburned for the first time and took batting practice in the same place the pros did. I was a young Alaskan in sunny Arizona and I had baseball in my blood and it felt like something else let me tell you. Well, at least what I remember of it.
We watched game after game and I got so many autographs that I couldn’t keep track of which players I had and which ones I didn’t. It got so bad that the players would see me coming and say, “You already got me.” I’m sure I was like a bad dream that wouldn’t go away, but to me it was like an Easter egg hunt and their big, fat signatures were the eggs. There were few fans, the players were accessible and willing to sign (except for Mike Marshall, the stupid jerk) and it seemed like one big tailgate party. My dad loved it. Mom not so much. My sister not at all (she got blood poisoning from her sunburn and slept a lot). It was here that I wanted to be when I grew up.
Let’s just say, things have changed a bit in 40 years. Lots of things.
Spring Training last week was a really good time. The weather was amazing, the ball parks were fun and we got to spend an amazing week with my sister, but the overwhelming thing I felt for the players was pity. I truly did. I know they make millions playing a game, but because of that, a small minority of the fans think they are owed something from them. The players are badgered and cajoled, sworn at, talked down to, and fawned over – all for a signature. A sharpie mark
on a baseball. A scribble on a piece of cowhide to prove that the owner actually had a brush with fame, or, as is more often the case, to be sold on Ebay so others, for a price, can hold a piece of that player’s soul for eternity. And, for all I know, many players may look at it like the tribesman from New Guinea who won’t let you take his picture because he’s sure you’re stealing a part of his soul. Some will sign, others might, and still others never do.
I do understand why we want it. It’s a memento, a moment in time. A freeze frame of your life that you can pull out and show to friends, who will then know that you met someone famous. It’s your six degrees of Kevin Bacon moment. And we love it. It’s a bit like buying that Star Wars action figure and never taking it out of the packaging. We hope it will go up in value and that we can pass it down to our children and someday it will be worth millions. On my deathbed I will hand my signed Whitie Herzog baseball to one of my lucky kids and they will hold it high and flaunt it over my other children and still not know who the heck Whitey Herzog was, but because he was famous they are somehow famous.
And in that autograph frenzy, where little kids are crushed by old men, something has been lost. You can see it in their eyes. Many of the players are not having fun. As they walk by the bleachers with fans yelling at them and begging them for a morsel of their attention, they look as if they are walking to the guillotine and Madame Defarge is knitting at the edge of the dugout. These men never have a moment in public where someone isn’t demanding something of them. They have got to feel like performing monkeys in a circus – and it’s not too far from a circus either.
And the players are partly to blame. Every player is a brand and that brand has to be advertised. And advertise they do. There is an endless supply of personal information spewing forth from the culvert pipes of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and it’s all a perfectly orchestrated wonderland where everyone is handsome and happy and all the kids dress well. We know everything about their lives, what they wear, what they eat, and how they play with their kids. Their wives even respond to social media posts which means that the players saw it, too, which means that I’m one step closer to him than I was before.
And we all feel like best friends. How can we not? I know as much about my favorite player (and I do have one) as I know about my best friend – maybe more – and so why wouldn’t I expect him to be my friend? We would be great buddies. I could hang with him like I do my other friends. I see him hanging with his friends and their families just like I do. We could be BEST FRIENDS! If only he would meet me and get to know me and I could tell him how cool I am and how cool he is and wouldn’t it be cool if… What a jerk he turned out to be. He didn’t even look at me when I yelled at him.
I do feel sorry for the players. I’m sure the game used to be fun. Now, I’m not so sure it is.
But, there are bright spots. Hector Sanchez is one. He’s the backup catcher for the SF Giants and I really like him. When you get to the field early you get to see the players with the dead eyes, but also the players that are completely energized by it all. They know what it’s about. They know that this is a sport with a dwindling fan base and they do what they can to create loyal followers. Hector is one of those guys.
He should be the face of baseball. He’s handsome and funny and kind (yes, it may all be orchestrated), but he spent an hour making sure everyone got an autograph and a picture with him. He even took the selfies, well, himself. I saw him walk across the field to give a baseball to a toddler and then do the same thing minutes later to give another ball to the toddler’s older brother – thus eliminating any fighting the parents would have to deal with on the way home. He made people feel like they were his best friend. That’s what I’m talking about. That was Spring Training 1974 style. I’m firmly in the Hector Sanchez fan club.
I’m sure there are more like Hector and I hope so because a little player attention goes a long way towards making someone’s day. My girls got some amazing autographs (they promised me that they did not swear at any of the players) from some really nice ball players and became “best friends” with many of them (winkie face). We were all thrilled with it. Spring Training is a special time. It’s a more intimate brand of baseball, something more akin to it’s Little League roots. Many of the old guard, the jaded ones, are just going through the motions, but there are many kids trying to make the 24 man roster who are completely sold out and though there is intense pressure they are reveling in the moment and can’t believe how fortunate they are to be standing on a field with people they idolize. You can see it in their faces because you are close enough to see it in their faces. There are no bad seats in Spring Training.
The Spring Training venues are amazing and intimate and a far cry from the days of dirt fields and bleachers (though bring your own food because it ain’t cheap at the park) and the fans are enthusiastic. The A-list players may only play an inning or two, but the young talent is really fun to watch. It’s a bit like a melodrama where you root for the good guys even though you know they stand little chance of surviving. It breaks my heart to see a pitcher trying to make the squad get shelled or a rookie outfielder going O for four. But then, that’s life and when they wash out they can always get a job as a manager at a hospital.
Baseball has changed and I’m not sure I like it, but as they say, it is what it is.
Above my desk is a picture of the American League vs. National League All Star Game held in Potlatch Idaho, October 26, 1914. The stands are packed with loggers and dignitaries all dressed in their best – all trying to catch a glimpse of their favorite players. The coach is standing in the box near first with his hands clasped behind his back and the pitcher is taking a signal. This game has been around a long time. It’s a game with a ball, a stick, and people running around trying not to get out and a group of other men trying to get them out. In essence it’s really just an elaborate game of tag. It is a game at its core, and a fun one at that. I’m still not sure how it got so serious.