“Baseball is 90% mental, the other 50% is physical.” -Yogi Berra
From the time I waddled out onto the Little League field to settle in behind home plate wearing shin guards, chest protector, and catcher’s mask – called the “Tools of Ignorance” in the trade – I was hooked on baseball. Baseball was a harsh teacher. There was the walk of shame back to the dugout when I allowed a pitch to skitter between my pads, the player on third scampering home, his team cheering madly. There was the mystery of hitting a curve ball. As Pedro Cerrano, voodoo-practicing outfielder in the film “Major League,” put it: “I cannot hit curveball. Straightball I hit it very much. Curveball, bats are afraid.”
In high school, baseball continued educating me. I was on a trajectory to be the starting catcher when a studly new guy appeared on the scene, Pete. On the football field he was all-conference tight end. In the spring, he caught baseball. I was history. Exiled to my Elba – right field – I grazed, cow-like, fretting that a left-handed batter would come to the plate and hit something my way. My teammates hooted, “Moooooo…!” To this day my grandchildren call me “Moo.” Thomas Jefferson was full of it. We are not all created equal.
If I taught math, geometry, or physics, I would teach in terms of baseball. For math, we would delve into box score hieroglyphics: how to determine batting average, earned run average, and on-base percentage. For geometry we would step out onto the diamond to study Euclidian theorems. Physics would be devoted to the launch angle and exit velocity of home runs. Since Abner Doubleday’s time, baseball stats have provided fodder for vehement debate in boardrooms and bars across the US. Happily, there are no alternate facts in baseball.
My Life’s Editor and I have been Tampa Bay Rays fans since 1998. We sit on the third base side of Tropicana Field, behind the opposing team’s dugout. It is optimum for viewing proceedings since the action comes counterclockwise around the base paths, towards us. Plus, we can peer across the diamond into the Rays’ dugout to catch high-fives, thrown batting helmets and attaboy butt pats. Major drawback: multiple times during the summer we sit among Yankee and Boston fans. Toronto fans, Cleveland fans, Minnesota fans are nice people from the Midwest who say “excuse me” if they bump into a person on the sidewalk. New York fans, Boston fans would throw an elbow and shout “Watch where yer goin’!” New York fans, Boston fans would tell a Girl Scout clutching boxes of S’mores to get off the front stoop. New York fans, Boston fans would stiff arm their grandmothers to grab a foul ball. They boo their own players.
When not watching the Rays in the flesh, we view them from our couch. TV brings the players up close and personal, including personal spitting. “Eww, gross” says herself, “Why do they do that?” I explain that the National Pastime involves a great deal of standing or sitting about. Chewing a plug of tobacco and spitting whiles away the hours. A golf-ball-sized wad in the cheek distinguishes a veteran player like Boston’s Devers, from rookies. “It’s still gross,” says she. I remind her that only in the 1980s were spittoons removed from the US House of Representatives. Like some pitchers, congressmen were not known for their aim.
TV allows us to get close-ups of mound visit drama. The pitching coach, followed by the catcher, calls time out and trots out for a consult with a thrower who has strewn the bases with the enemy. Infielders edge up to catch the coach’s words of wisdom. They frown, spit, scratch. All parties to this intervention cover their mouths with their gloves in the event the wily guys in the enemy dugout can lip read. Recently this huddle involved a Japanese interpreter, who covered his mouth. Go figure.
Rays players are from all over the Caribbean basin. Throw in guys from Taiwan, South Korea, and Mississippi and you have the United Nations. Though all players stand at attention for our national anthem, more than a few are likely clueless about “the rockets’ red glare.” The “Star-Spangled Banner” is based on the 18th century British pub drinking song “To Anacreon in Heaven.” It is difficult to sing, starting low, then requiring a Sherpa to scale its heights. Performers strain to emit the highest soulful screech they can muster to finish the business off. Only Whitney Houston could do it with proper soul. I prefer “Oh Canada,” sung when the Toronto Blue Jays are in town. It is prettier yet more muscular, asking Canadians, serious and responsible folks, to “Stand on guard . . . for . . . thee.” But numero uno in the category of ball game anthems I would like to sing is “God Bless America.” Written by a Jewish guy from Russia and performed by a country-western singer from California, it can’t be more American than that.
Note: Glove and hat above provided by Dr. John Mason, All-Star Kids and Kubs player.