Saturday, November 5, 2011

Baseball, The American Way, & Etc.

"Give them games, bread, and wine, keep them from war, and they will be happy"

     The very first baseball game I went to was a minor league ballgame in Honolulu. The Hawaii Islanders (then, a Los Angeles Angels subsidiary) played--who knows. I remember neither the score, nor the opposing team. Mostly what I recall about the Islanders was their announcer, Harry Kalas. Who went on to much bigger and better things, like announcing tennis matches, and Philadelphia Phillies games.

     So my most memorable early baseball experience had to have been at Candlestick Park on June 27 (?) 1965, when my father and uncle took my cousin and myself to watch the San Francisco Giants play the Los Angeles Dodgers. Uncle and cousin were Dodger fans, needless to say, my father and I were not. Juan Marichal faced Don Drysdale in a matchup which the Giants took at a shutout- 5-0. Jim Ray Hart (the man whose fate nobody seems to know) hit a grand slam homerun, with another run driven in by Jim Davenport. We sat in the bleachers of right field, it was a night game (and long before they began awarding Croix's de Candlestick for the effort) and the biggest memory I took home from any of it was the large black woman in front of us who would jump up and cheer each time Willie Mays took the plate- "Hit that bawl, Willeh, hit that bawl!" The fact the Giants won was also a major plus, of course, allowing us bragging rights on the drive back home.

     I could never understand why the '65 Giants never got to the World Series. With Mays, McCovey, Cepeda, Marichal, (and Mr. Hart) one would have thought they had the best shot at it. But they traded Orlando Cepeda in the middle of it. It was my 'there is no Santa Claus" moment of early life. They traded him to the St. Louis Cardinals for Ray Sadecki, but a middling starting pitcher at the time, and the Dodgers won the Series. It was not the best of seasons.

    I was a diehard Giants fan however for many years beyond that, even after my Dad started getting free tickets to games from a contractor friend who felt the need to stay on his good side and offered him selected tickets to various games throughout the year in his box on the first base side of the Candlestick playing field, and during seasons when the Giants- even with Willie McCovey- were still not living up to expectations. 1969, 70, 71, 72, 73... throughout these dry years my Dad and I made the Candlestick trip six or seven times a season, and every season turned up a blank. Yet we kept going.

    Sometimes those weekend games would be doubleheaders- a fan could pay for one and stay to watch two ballgames. On those occasions something might happen memorable- but usually not for the Giants. I am sure I did not see Dock Ellis's LSD inspired no-hitter vs. the Giants, though I did see him pitch many times. I did, however, watch Henry Aaron break Giant Mel Ott's National League home run record with his 512th of his career. The scoreboard lit up a big "512." Poor Mel Ott. I had got his number on my Little League uniform (11). A Giant would not hold the record again for another forty years, until Barry Bonds reclaimed it.

     And so about that time the Oakland A's began a stellar run of World Championships across the bay, and Dad's erstwhile friend began giving him tickets to these affairs. Those 1970's A's were something else. Mustachioed, duded up like the old-timey ballplayers, wearing kangaroo leather grey shoes that gave them the appearance of mice in comparison the the regulation Rawlings black of the rest of the League, the A's won championship after championship with pitchers like Vida Blue, Rollie Fingers, and characters like Sal Bando, Campy Campaneris, and many more. I've forgotten the names. Not as if I cared. I was a Giants fan, after all.

     And therefore, as a Giants fan, I admit, at that age I was losing heart. I stayed away from active interest for a number of years. In the mid eighties I began to get a little annoyed that the losing years continued. My interest waned. I cared little for the team that could seem to do no better than hold a corner on last place. Something happened, or must have happened, however, because by 1989 when they made it back to the World Series, I was once more tuning in to games, and rooting for the home team.

     The great Earthquake of 1989 however put a damper on everyone's enthusiasms, and the Giants being swept was a large part of that. So they muddled on, and again, my interest waned. They threatened to leave town, again and again. Finally they stuck a spankin' new ballpark right down in the Embarcadero (where there's a lot less wind and a lot more sun) and Candlestick Park became but a bad memory. The new stadium (This-Year's-Corporate-Sponsor-Name Park) was a beauty. A wonderful and perfect place to see a ballgame, even if you did have the distraction of  a stupid giant Coke bottle out in left field and a giant mitt stuck in the air. (Do players get extra points if they homer off it?) One wished for a Paul Bunyan-esque statue to groutesquify the grounds as well. Couldn;t hurt. Instead they had Rusty the Robot, an idiotic Meal-on-Wheels that rolled itself around the right field stands. I was happy when he was retired. But at least he wasn't quite so retarded as Crazy Crab. And their new mascot, "Lou Seal" had a lot of character. Rude, lewd and crude, he would get atop the dugout and thrust his defiance at the Dodger-ese and whoever else was in the alien camp across the diamond. Things were getting better.

     But things were going to get a lot worse, at least, for the country. Baseball had gone from being National Pastime to a poor cousin to Football, with its trumpetry, galabalooza half-time spectacles, and the yearly annual chips-and-beer ritual of the Stupor Bowl. Baseball was boring, people said. Nothing happens. Or takes too long to happen. I never understood those people. baseball for me was high drama. It is never over until the final out and the fat lady is up there wailing. Baseball relied on skill, on strategy (perhaps more than football!). Football was gamesmanship, and as George Carlin put it, in the best of his comedic sketches, "more closely likened to war." Brute force is what football is about. Baseball takes wit, brains as well as athleticism.

     September 11th hit America and the shit hit the fan. All of a sudden, there was something real outthere, something wicked, and bad, which hated us. Americans came back to the poor cousin and said, we wish to make amends. The 2001 World Series had an electric and unifying effect on the nation. That a National League team, the Diamondbacks, could take on the Evil Empire of the Plutocracy (the NY Yankees) and win, gave hope back to the little guy, in 10-wheelers and barbershops across the nation. And by then I was actually earning a little money to afford to return to ballgames, so I started coming to the stadium.

    I found it absolutely wonderful to be able to forgo thinking about politics and the problems presented by "reality" and sit back and enjoy the sport in such a great setting. At baseball games, there are no Republicans vs. Democrats - & no false, silly intellectual posturing and sophistry... only Us vs Them. Our Team vs. "Those Guys". Things are black and white. I am no moral relativist. I care not for shading the world in slates of gray. I can understand duality. And in the duality of yin & yang there's a drop of the yin inside the yang and vice versa. But it's still as oil to water. You can see and define the parameters. "You can't tell the players without a program!" And there's only fellow Americans there to egg you on, pretty much, although there's an occasional Aussie,  a Brit raised on cricket, New Zealander, or Japanese in attendance- but all that matters is, they're rooting for the team you are.

    Baseball is such a great antidote to politics and beating your head against a wall about things you cannot control. and I think that's one of the biggest reasons I love it. More Bread! More Circuses! Go Giants!

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