Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Boys of Summer

I never played the game because I was only ever good at sports that involved my feet, but nevertheless I love baseball.  Walt Whitman once said, “I see great things in baseball. It's our game - the American game.”  I see more in baseball than just that it is a sport we can claim as our national pastime.  It is like poetry.  It requires strategy, timing, and a sense of control.  It is also, as the broadcaster Ernie Harwell said,” …a lot like life. It's a day-to-day existence, full of ups and downs. You make the most of your opportunities in baseball as you do in life.”  That aspect of the game always appealed to me.

When I was a very little guy, my father worked as controller at Wyler soft drinks which had its corporate offices on Addison Street in Chicago right next to the WGN studios, who broadcasted the Cubs. Consequently, he would sometimes get tickets to games and take me.  One time he bought me a hat at the park.  On the way home, while I was playing the wind tunnel game with my arm out the window of our station wagon, my hat blew off and away.  I yelled, “Daddy, I lost I lost my Cubs hat out the window!” He immediately cut across traffic and pulled off on to the side of the Kennedy.  He ran back and got it off the side of the road.  He handed it to me, not angry, and said, “Don’t you ever lose this again.”  After that whenever I get in a car I take my hat off and sit on it.

Even though I was born on the southern side of Chicago I have always been a Cubs fan.  Although in my family we love all Chicago sports I think because of my dad we have tended to pull more for the Cubs. There is one exception, my sister, Melissa. I like to tease her because she married a Catholic and roots more for the White Sox. Her husband has said to me before, “She just decided to go to winning teams.”  If he wasn’t one of my best friends, and my niece, Molly, my goddaughter, I might have started talking to a guy I know.

One of my favorite Cubs stories is about a time when my wife, Karen, and I got invited by her maid-of-honor to go to a charity event at Wrigley.  Linda was working as a graphic artist on the fan magazine and she got comped four tickets. It was the night they turned the lights on the field for the first time as a test drive.  There were a ton of old players there signing balls.  I spent almost an hour in line getting an autographed ball from Sweet Swinging Billy Williams, who was always my favorite Cubs player.  I nearly killed one of my sons once on an afternoon when I caught him in the backyard playing catch with it against a fence.  I yelled at him.  Karen said I was being unfair. She asked, “What’s more important, that ball or your son?”  I had to think a minute. I’d had that ball a long time. I have two sons.

Seriously, the really great story of that night was when I met a man who was the father-in-law of one of Linda’s colleagues.  He looked just so happy.  He was an older gentleman. I got him a hot dog and sat down to talk to him. He told me about how when he was a kid that he and his friends used to go steal a stack of scorecards from the open door at Wrigley and then chase down cars to sell them for cheaper than they could be bought in the park.  One day as he jumped on the running board of an expensive car the man riding inside grabbed him and thumped him on the arm with his walking stick.  He said to my new friend, “You want to sell scorecards, you come work for me inside the park.”  It was old man Wrigley.  He told me that he went to every home game from then on.  He told me that he never dreamed there would be in his lifetime night games at Wrigley Field.  

Because I do apparently have a penchant for falling for perennial losers, the other team that I have always followed is the Boston Red Sox.  The reason for this is that when my family lived in Florida for a couple of years, when I was around seven, we lived in Winter Haven, which also happened to be the spring camp for the Sox. My dad took me there all of the time and I got to see some guys with strange names like Yastrzemski, who I liked.  There was also a young catcher named Fisk who I also liked.  I always thought being a catcher was the best position to play in baseball because you could see the whole field and got to signal the pitcher what to do. 

In 2004 when the Red Sox won their first World Series Championship in 86 years, I was a mess.  Karen made me go to the basement during the games because the gnawing on pillows and constant expletives were scaring the children.  I told her, “You don’t understand. This may be the closest I ever get.” In that case I had my faith affirmed. The cheering and dancing were epic.  Again the children were frightened.  Now that Red Sox look like they might be serious contenders again, I’m sure my wife is moving pillows and thinking to herself, “Oh, dear God, please not again.”  I am already wearing my hat all the time  and the beads a Bostonian friend gave me. I am on the phone and the computer constantly talking to my east coast friends and asking, “Do you really think we have a shot?”

A final baseball story.  When I worked in publishing we were at a conference in New Orleans trying to tout our authors and get economists to buy or at least endorse our books.  My boss, Gary, forced me and my colleague, Joan, to go to dinner with some of them and their wives.  I really just wanted to go drink some beer and listen to some jazz. He said, “You have to go, T.S.  I’m Mormon and I have no clue about food and wine.  Art will be there, and you like Art, right?”  Art was an author of ours that I did indeed like very much.  When we were working on his book I used to visit him in St. Louis where he was a professor at Washington University. He and I would always eat Italian on the Hill and take in a Cardinals game if we could.  I said, “OK, Gary, if Art’s there, I’ll come.” 

Dinner was an unmitigated disaster.  There is nothing worse than sitting around a table of stoic economists that refuse to talk and do nothing but stare at you. Gary signaled me to leave the room for a minute.  When we were in the hall he said, “You have to do something or they’re going to start chewing off their limbs to get away.”  I honestly said, “I got nothing. I think we have to write this one off.”   We went back to the table and Art started talking to me about baseball.  Whereas I  am all about strategy, Art as an economist himself has always been a stats guy.  As soon as we started talking about baseball the room came alive.  One guy said “I went to Ted Williams’s baseball camp as a kid.”  Another guy said, “What year?  I went there too.”   Suddenly, memories and stories, between men and women alike, all about baseball, started flying.  I flagged down the waiter.  I said to him, “I think we will need more wine.”  We closed down Antoine’s that night at 1:30.

Walking home to our hotel that night, Joan asked me, “What is it about baseball?  Especially what is it about boys and baseball?  My husband does it too. You start talking about baseball and he can’t stop.”    I said, “I don’t know, Joan, but I love it.”  

It took me a long time but I think I have the answer .  At its essence it is the simplest game in the world to play.  You throw a ball at a guy who tries to hit it and if he does then everyone else on the field tries to catch it and/or throw it to someone before the hitter gets on base.  At its best it is about traditions, superstitions; it is about strategy, timing and control so that the basic elements come together in something excellent.   It’s about knowing that every at-bat could change everything in the game.  Most importantly it’s the kind of sport where fathers, other family members, and friends can connect, because it moves slower than basketball or hockey that are machine gun games.  Some people don’t like baseball because of that, but it is why I do.