Sunday, April 3, 2011

Baseball Beginnings: Why I’m Not a Baseball Player


I was not a baseball player.

I left that to my brothers.

I didn’t know the fundamentals of fielding a ground ball, how to round first base after singling up the middle, or how to use two hands to nab a fly ball out of the unlimited summer sky. I had no concept of how long 90 feet between bases actually was, what signals the pitcher gave away that let me know it was time to steal second base, or what it meant to pick up a teammate who stranded a runner in scoring position.

This wasn’t because I didn’t want to be a baseball player.

I watched in awe with my father as my older brother pitched his heart out in high school without reservation or fear. When he put on that Bristol Eastern uniform with "1" stitched on the back, he ceased to be my brother and became a superhero. He was everything I wanted to be.

It’s also not like I never played baseball.

It just wasn’t real baseball.

My younger brother and I would play Wiffle ball in the backyard from the start of spring until the chill of late October. I hold the Ford Stadium records for career homeruns, single season homeruns, strikeouts in a game, and career championships. If there were a Wiffle ball Hall of Fame, I’d be in it (turns out there is, and I'm not).

I had plenty of opportunities to be a baseball player.

My family is baseball obsessed. This all stemmed from my father. He followed the great New York Yankees teams of the 1960s (and the not-so-great teams during the backend of that era), and, according to his memory, could pick the ball out of the dirt at first base with the best of them. His oldest son was in uniform practically out of the womb, so one would have assumed that his second son would follow suit without question. He made it clear to me that it was my choice to play or not to play.

I wasn’t a baseball player because I was afraid.

You can’t be afraid and be a baseball player. I was shy. I was a crier. I was a thin-skinned kid who took everything the wrong way and then sulked about it. It would be easy to heap all the blame on my father for not forcing me to play, as my older brother often does, but I can’t imagine the tantrums I would have thrown once someone starting rifling ground balls my way. The scenario in my head gets even worse thinking about if I had made a mistake in a live game. My father’s tough, but no man could have endured that kind of humiliation.

I did end up trying to become a baseball player.

I started shaking off my shy demeanor as a teenager, and tried out for my middle school baseball team. I was the first player to take batting practice that first practice. I fouled off the coach’s first pitch, and I could feel the vibration in my stung fingers in the bottom of my throat. I never made contact again. The coach announced at the end of the day that everyone would need to turn in a physical form if they wanted to play. I knew I wasn’t any good, and didn’t want to put my parents through the trouble of arranging everything when I was just going to get cut. I used this as an excuse to give up.

My tryout for the local summer recreational league was possibly my most embarrassing moments as a player. I had decided I’d be a good first baseman, since they didn’t seem to do very much, so there I was as a low throw came in from the shortstop. I didn’t have a chance at catching it. Luckily, my big toe stopped the ball from getting past me. My knee caught the next throw with ease. This was all in view of my older brother, who was going to be a coach in the league. I wasn’t embarrassed for me, I knew I was terrible, but I hated letting down my hero. He drafted me anyway.

I tried two more times to join teams of any consequence. I gave it my all and lasted through weeks of tryouts for the freshman baseball team in high school. The problem was I still couldn’t hit, was slow afoot, and was only an average fielder with a below average arm. Pretty cut and dry analysis of why I was cut. My sophomore year I tried out for the J.V. team, and within two days my legs felt like I had run back-to-back marathons. In what felt like a coward move at the time, I wrote the head coach that I was done. I heard through the grapevine that he thought it was a classy way to go out.

So, I failed at being a baseball player, but these failures didn’t mark my complete banishment from the game.

I got to be in the same dugout with my older brother as he coached my team for two seasons in that summer league. I was able to become an assistant coach for my younger brother’s Little League team and watch him experience everything I was too afraid to do at his age. Eventually, my lack of baseball prowess helped me land a job with a great northeastern college baseball team, giving me all the experiences of a collegiate athlete with half the work. Not to mention, along the way I learned how not to give up.

When spring approaches and baseball season breaks through the boredom of a long winter, I think of all the things that could have been, and I appreciate the things that are. I can’t rob a line drive in an endless expense of lawn; I can’t eyeball a pitch outside to force a base on balls; and I can’t ensure my team is wearing the whitest damn uniforms possible during a Sunday day game. But I sure as hell can write about the game that I’ve loved all my life. And that’s just what I plan to do.

I should point out before signing off this Sunday, that I’m the last Ford brother to wear anything resembling a baseball uniform. It may be in a softball league, but it still connects me to the game in some way.

I’m not a baseball player…but, I’ll take it.

Player Spotlight: Old Reliable

My goal was to find a player whose name contained some variation of “beginning” or “origin” to commemorate the reboot of this blog. I perused through my voluminous ESPN Baseball Encyclopedia early in the week, but came up empty. I tried to think of old ballplayers my father randomly mentions and listened intently to the Opening Day telecasts in hopes of getting a good lead. No luck. I thought of ditching the idea of Player Spotlight entirely, until I entered the magic word into the search engine of baseball-reference.com.

Start.

Joe Start.


Joe couldn’t have been more perfect for a baseball/history nerd if he tried. He began his career with the Brooklyn Atlantics in 1980, four years before the Civil War and eleven years before the formation of the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players (the early predecessor to the National League). He led the Atlantics to two undefeated seasons in 1864 and 1865, years better remembered for the final clashes between the armies of Grant and Lee. He joined the New York Mutuals of the National Association in 1971, and would play professionally for 16 more seasons before retiring in 1886. He also, despite some debate, is considered to be the first first baseman to play away from the base, rather than close to it or on top of it as was the custom during the early days of the game.

Joe registered his highest batting average of .360 in 1871 for the Mutuals. He led the led the league with 100 hits in 1878 with the Chicago White Stockings, and logged a .351 batting average. He averaged 105 hits from 1878–1885, and drove in nearly 300 runs during that span. Joe smacked a career 117 hits in 1882 for the Providence Grays, and would finish his major league run with 1,417.

I realized why I should still care about Player Spotlight. Only the men wearing them make the uniforms of our hometown teams memorable. Baseball players' personalities, eccentricities, and character (good and bad) have defined the game just as much as their athleticism has. Throughout the game’s history, fans have piled on expectations on these men who, at their core, are no more superhuman than the rest of us. We revel when they defy logic and met them, and sulk and moan when they reveal their true humanity and fall beneath them. Either way, only a chosen few get to button up a jersey, pitch or hit a searing fastball, and leave behind a lasting statistical imprint that nerds like me can scrutinize centuries later. Their stories matter, so I’ll keep looking for them.

Opening Day

“Detroit is in Michigan?” one of my coworkers asked out loud in front of people.

While my other coworker, who happens to be from Michigan, tried to answer diplomatically, my eyes were fixed on the flat screen television above the table where we were enjoying lunch.

It wasn’t showing scenes of weeks old trash being unearthed from two feet of melting snow, celebrities devouring goddesses with tiger blood (no, that can't be right), or people stepping cautiously through the Bronx Zoo.

It was showing a baseball game.

Finally.

My beloved Yankees were playing the Detroit (yes, the one in Michigan) Tigers and I had done enough work that day to justify stealing away to catch a couple of innings of the first game of 2011. The Yanks hadn’t managed much against Tigers’ ace Justin Verlander until the bottom of the third inning. Mark Teixeira came up with two runners on and launched a ball to deep right field.

As soon as the ball was hit, I leaned my body toward fair territory, helping the ball’s trajectory stay true. As the umpire called the ball fair, the patrons around us cheered, and so did I. I got chills as if the homerun had decided the final game of the World Series instead of a meaningless game in April.

Baseball is back. And so am I.

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