For many folks, spring training and baseball is part of their rite of spring transition from America’s game (football) to America’s past-time. Or, as I like to say, to a sport whose time has long past, regardless of how many people come out to watch. I’m an ex-baseball fan for many reasons, a fair number of which I’ve discussed in my postings at the end of ’07 and in February ’08.
Much of my disdain for the sport is because of its contradictory history around race. It’s not just what happened before Jackie Robinson and the ’47 Dodgers or with Hank Aaron in chasing down Babe Ruth or with Al Campanis’ horrible comments about Blacks as managers or in the front office on Nightline in ’87. No, it’s about the everyday nature of how many Americans see baseball that reshaped my thinking around the game between high school and graduate school.
It all started with my own experience trying out for Mount Vernon High School’s varsity baseball team my junior year, in March of ’86. As much as I loved football and liked basketball, I really loved America’s favorite pastime. Having worked out with the baseball team in the fall had given me the confidence to pursue the week-long process of elimination. One of my student-athlete classmates spent some time encouraging me, although I didn’t doubt that she had doubts about me making the team. She was on MVHS’ swim team and was an excellent swimmer. This was in addition to the school newspaper, Meltzer’s mock trial team, the National Honors Society and a thousand other things she was into. Out of all of my classmates, there were few I knew who were busier — at least in school. Her day started around 5 am, with swimming at 5:30 or 6. As much as I thought that I couldn’t do what she was doing, I was often up at 5:30 or 6 am myself, ready to start the day.
Despite her ambivalent encouragements, I went for baseball as hard as I could for the most part. The second week of March was to be four days of constant competition followed by frustration. The tryouts were all after school, from three to five o’clock, in the indoor practice facility for the baseball and track teams. We did calisthenics and stretching, followed my more calisthenics and stretching, followed by defensive practice. Beyond the competition, the first thing I noticed was that out of the thirty-two of us, including the team, only four Blacks were a part of this entire process. All four of us were trying out. The team itself was all-White and virtually all-Italian. The coach was a fat Italian man in his late-thirties and not exactly the nicest guy in the world. If you made an error, even if you managed to work it out, he called you off the field immediately and tried someone else in that spot. None of us had much margin for error.
But I made two errors that week that stuck out for me. One was on Tuesday. The coaches took us outside to practice catching fly balls. I’d never practiced catching anything in the outfield, whether to run up on a ball or to back up, or even how to hold my glove. There was one hit directly to me, a line drive of a fly ball. It hit my glove fine, and then I allowed it to drop. As soon as I dropped the ball, the coach took me off the field. My second error was on Wednesday, but it did more damage to me. We were doing infield drills, and they had me at shortshop. I must’ve fielded eight or ten balls while I was out there, backhanding balls, spinning and throwing to first pretty good. One ball hit to me took a hop right off my balls. I caught it in my glove and threw it to first before I fell down and grabbed myself. It took about forty-five seconds before I felt the full force of the pain, which went away just as quickly. There was certainly a lot of laughter around that, drowning out the fact that I still made the play. The coach just shook his head.
The last day of tryouts was spent in the batting cage. Each of us were supposed to take whacks at an eighty mile-an-hour ball coming from the ball machine. When my turn came up, I had a total of four balls to swing at in the simulator. I was already over-thinking the scenario before I got in the cage. My mind went to a situation in gym last year, to softball on a humid upper-80s day. Before we started the game, I took some practice swings with a gym mate throwing the softball overhand as hard as he could. I swung as hard as I could and hit the pitch just about a hundred yards. My arms and hands, though, were numb, and my crooked left fingers in a lot of pain. I’d conjured up my own downfall. I was scared to make full contact with the baseball. And, for the first three swings, I swung and missed, swung and barely tipped the ball, and swung and missed again. I thought to myself, “This is ridiculous. If I want any chance to make this team, I have to make contact.” I slowed down the last pitch, swung and made contact, and it didn’t hurt. I wished that I’d done that sooner.
There was only one other Black guy trying out by the fourth day, someone I didn’t know, but was really athletic. He got in the cage and tore up the baseballs, making crisp, clean consistent contact with the balls. I knew he was a shoo-in after that. There was another kid, a kid I recognized from the neighborhood. It was the son of the pizza shop owner, the one whose pizzeria was just down the street from 616. This guy had missed all three days of tryouts, but was invited to batting practice on the fourth day. He too went in the batting cage and clobbered the baseball. At that point my heart sunk. I knew I wasn’t going to make the team. Sure enough, the coach posted the names of the guys who made the team the following week, with my name not on the list. I was disappointed. “[The coach] says that you’re pretty good, but you’re also a danger to yourself,” my student-athlete classmate said with a bit of a giggle. I smiled, but I wasn’t in a joking mood.
Of the thirteen people who were on the team, twelve were White, and eleven of those twelve were Italian. The one token Black guy was easily the best athlete on the team, head and shoulders over most of last year’s starters. And the kid, the one whose father owned the pizza shop near 616, the one who only showed up for tryouts on the fourth day, was among the guys on this year’s team. I may or may not have been good enough to make the team. I just felt that the Italian coaches had rigged the process, tainted it in some way to favor kids who were one of their own or played Little League with their nephew or second cousin. The experience left me with a bitter taste in my mouth. “How is this even fair?,” I thought to myself as I looked at the list. “Mom really is right. You do have to be ten times better to be equal in this society.” I knew that there was a track coach and a basketball coach still interested in me, but the racial thing stuck out to me. To recognize that baseball was an Italian’s club while only Blacks played basketball and ran track, Whites did almost all the swimming and football was the only sport where the spirit of integration lived on really bothered me. I guessed that the “content of character,” or in this case, talent or potential meant little to these coaches.
That experience did not end my love affair with baseball. It did start me on the road to becoming an ex-baseball fan, though. Ironically, it was the Mets winning the World Series in October ’86 that accelerated the process. They were my ultimate team of underdogs, a team that most New Yorkers only cared about when they were winning, which wasn’t very often. Now that they had the best record in baseball and were officially world champs, all kinds of things started coming out about Darryl Strawberry’s alcohol and drug use and Dwight Gooden’s first positive drug test. That was bad enough. Hearing what folks would say about these guys on talk radio was even worse. They were “animals,” I heard many more than a few callers into the sports talk shows say. They make “way too much money,” or they “don’t deserve a second chance,” I heard others say. Mind you, this was the era of Steve Howe, a seven-time violator of the major league baseball drug policy.
In a league full of coke heads and beer bingers, the two star Black athletes were being beat up, not by talk show hosts, but by blue-collar White callers who longed for the good ol’ days of Ruth, DiMaggio, and Mantle, or the happy-go-lucky Willie Mays. At least two of those guys regularly medicated themselves with alcohol, but I guessed that was okay, because they looked more like the people who were calling into the New York area talk shows wanting Strawberry’s and Gooden’s heads.
Moving to Pittsburgh and going to college gave me a better perspective on major league sports, especially baseball and football. Outside of baseball crazy New York, most folks I met were crazy about football, basketball or soccer, whether as grade schoolers or grad students. Baseball was boring, plain and simple. It really was. I watched enough Pittsburgh Pirates games to understand that. Even when the Bucs — as they’re called in the ‘Burgh — were good, the games were about as exciting as a Champions Tour golf tournament in the middle of August. Even with them making the playoffs three out of four years in one stretch, the media and the fans hated Barry Bonds. Now, Barry Bonds has always made himself hard to like, or to put it another way, is a surly jerk. But so are so many other professional athletes that actually have superior talent. Like Strawberry and Gooden, Bonds was vilified on the talk radio shows by folks who wanted him to be more like his grinning godfather Willie Mays.
The next and final set of turning points came in the four years before the ’94 strike and lockout. When conservative columnist George Will published his book about baseball and its wonderfully timeless symmetry and treating the game as a science, it killed my interest in the sport. I knew as a spectator and as someone who actually spent some time playing the game how simple it really is. Reading defenses in football is hard. Figuring out which club to use on a windy day at Pebble Beach is difficult. Catching a baseball is pretty basic by comparison. Waiting forever for someone to hit a ball in your direction, that’s boring and excruciating. After reading the first ten pages, I wanted to burn the book.
By this time, I had started playing basketball to relieve the stresses of graduate school. I found myself gaining confidence in my jump shot and in playing pickup games with average Joe’s and with former Pitt basketball players. I found the follies of Greg Norman and golf more exciting than watching a great pitchers’ duel between Greg Maddox and Orel Hershiser. I always enjoyed football, playing and watching. By the time Joe Carter hit his World Series ending home run against the Atlanta Braves in ’93, I no longer had a real interest in baseball. I still knew its history, or rather, its mythology around its statistics, records and glory days. But I also knew way too much about its ugly history and its seedy underbelly to continue to follow the sport.
That was why when Ken Burns’ Baseball documentary came out in the fall of ’94 — right in the middle of the baseball lockout that would cancel that year’s World Series — I declared myself an ex-baseball fan. Watching sportscaster Bob Costas drone on and on about how he cried when he walked by Babe Ruth’s statue when he was seven years old made me gag. Hearing old and crusty White guys talk about their White greats when Blacks especially were shut out from playing major league baseball pissed me off. But most importantly, the complete whitewash of continuing to call baseball America’s pastime when the sport had been in decline since the late ’50s was just too much to swallow.
Today, I see it as an American sport supported mostly by White guys between the ages of thirty-five and seventy-five, mostly living in the Northeast corridor between Washington, DC and Boston, and mostly waxing nostalgic about the heroes they barely know or knew. It was baseball that taught me one of my more bitter lessons about talent versus collusion and ethnic identification. I hope, for my son’s sake, that he never falls in love with this sport.