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Learning Heartbreak

Let me tell you a story.

The year was 2003 and I was a nine-year old kid in the west suburbs of Chicago.  At this age, you’ve learned to follow either the Cubs or the White Sox, and as my grandpa was a Cubs fan, I naturally followed the Cubs.

My parents went out on a date one night, and my neighbor was watching me.  I watched the Cubs game with him until I had to go to bed.  I didn’t want to sleep of course.  The Cubs were in a chase for the division title with Houston and every game counted. 

I went up to my room to sleep as my neighbor watched on.  Before I slept, I prayed.  The exact words, of course, I don’t remember, but I do remember that I asked God for the Cubs to win the pennant.  I’d gotten the idea from Angels in the Outfield, and when I told my neighbor about the ploy he told me it wouldn’t work.  I had faith regardless.

That Cubs team was stacked with talent.  Their rotation boasted Mark Prior, Kerry Wood, and a young but lively Carlos Zambrano.  Their lineup was an offensive force, with Sosa, Alou, Ramirez, and some good contact hitters.

The Cubs surged towards the pennant, winning the division with 88 victories and then moving on to beat the Atlanta Braves in their opening playoff series.  I rooted for the Cubs, but this series marked the first time I heard the Tomahawk Chop at Turner Field.  I’ve loved it ever since.  I remember enjoyed the sound of it during that series, and my dad would jokingly scold me, telling me that if the Chop was playing it meant the Braves were rallying.

The Cubs would play the Florida Marlins next.  Game six came, Bartman interfered (it wasn’t his fault, Moises!), and the Cubs basically choked big time.  I was stunned and saddened.  It was the first heartbreak I’d ever experienced in sports. 

By now ten (my birthday was in September), I believed that God was trying to tell me something.  I still think that.  What exactly?  I still don’t know.  Today, I almost feel as if God told me He won’t interfere with sports and games’ outcomes.  I don’t know.  Maybe He was just telling me to wait.  Maybe He does care that the Cubs win the World Series.  I’ll be honest.  I’d like to think that.

As children, we’re so loyal.  I recall going downtown Naperville, where we lived and still live, wearing my Cubs jersey.  They were my guys.  Heartbreak couldn’t change that.

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Ballparks? No cookie-cutting here!

It continues to amaze me, no matter how often I go to a professional baseball game, that I so easily become immersed in the atmosphere.  Wrigley Field is my most common venue to see a game, but I’ve been across town to U.S. Cellular Field as well (they should’ve just named it Comiskey Park again!).  I’ve also been to Washington to see the Nationals, Pittsburgh, the old Busch Stadium, Miller Park in Milwaukee, and Fenway Park.  Each one was an incredible experience.

Wrigley Field and Fenway are, of course, the oldest parks, and baseball relics of sorts.  People desire to visit these Holy Grails of the sports world just to say they’ve been. When I step back, I consider myself lucky being able to attend a game at Wrigley so often.  It’s too bad the maintenance isn’t better there.

After Wrigley and Fewnay, PNC Park in Pittsburgh is my personal favorite, at least of the ones I’ve been to.  The skyline is picturesque, and the Clemente Bridge hangs over the rivers that the city is known for.  There wall to straightaway right field is covered in a league scoreboard.  I was fortunate to have attended when the Pirates were a hot ticket in town, and the stands were full as the Buccos hosted the St. Louis Cardinals.

Pittsburgh lost the game as Albert Pujols tore Pirates pitching apart.  Yadier Molina also homered for the Cardinals.  Pittsburgh ended up tanking for the remainder of the season, while St. Louis surged into the playoffs to become the 2011 World Series Champions.

I have witnessed a total of three World Series- winning teams in my lifetime.  Of course, I saw the 2011 Cardinals, but I also witnessed a shellacking by St. Louis hitters at the hands of awful Cubs pitching in 2006.  The Redbirds boasted a lineup that included Pujols, Rolen, Edmonds, and a young Yadier Molina.

I also got a chance to head to U.S. Cellular to see Boston play the White Sox in 2007.  We sat in the bleachers and watched the Sawx absolutely hand it to the Sox, with Curt Schilling pitching brilliantly.  I believe David Ortiz hit two homers in that game.  My cousin and I cheered in the faces of distressed and annoyed White Sox fans.  Boston would complete a four-game sweep over Colorado to win the World Series.

Milwaukee may be considered slightly over-modern by baseball purists, but I really enjoyed myself there.  It was shortly after Manny Ramirez’s suspension in 2009, and my dad and I wanted to see Manny and the rest of the Dodgers.  Manny homered, Matt Kemp hit a grand slam, and the Dodgers won.  If I recall correctly, the Brewers and Dodgers combined for 20 runs in the game, Los Angeles scoring 12 of them.

When my parents and I went to D.C., we figured we had to go to a Nationals game at the brand new park.  It was 2008, and the Nats weren’t what they are now, but the park was beautiful and the seats were six bucks.  I don’t remember much about the game itself, but I love the stadium.  Our nation’s capital has seen a positive revival in baseball.

I went to the old Busch Stadium, and yes, I adore Cardinal fans.  My appreciation for baseball is on par with theirs, so how can I not?  They love their team and know their players.  I can’t recall much about the game, other than Pirate Rob Mackowiak drilling a home run into a section near us to lead the game off.  This game is an example that as the 10-year old kid that I was in 2004, I didn’t care who was playing baseball; I just wanted to see a game.  The Cardinals, by the way, were the eventual National League champs, but got swept by Boston to end an 86 year curse.

There are many parks I’d still like to venture to for a game.  I’ve been to Dodger Stadium for a tour, and even have a cup of the dirt from the field, but a game would blow the tour away.  Anaheim looks beautiful, as does Baltimore’s Camden Yards, (the former) Ballpark in Arlington, and many other places.  One of my goals is to go down south to Atlanta and do the Tomahawk Chop.

I’m glad that the Marlins tore down their old place.  Pro Player Stadium (the name I remember it by) was not an ideal ballpark; it was meant more for football.  The Metrodome is a terrific football venue (it gets incredibly loud) but I imagine this would not be an ideal park to play baseball in, either.  Target Field is one of the places I’d most like to see a game; I’ve seen the inside through the gates and it’s gorgeous.  If only their team was as competitive as in their mid to late 2000’s days.

Overall, baseball stadiums are unique, as I have written before.  Football, basketball, hockey, and other sports have no room for individuality in field of play, because all the measurements have to be the same.  It’s interesting that in baseball, the outfield makes way for all sorts of nooks and crannies, because in many ways, they lead to a more fascinating experience.

Discovering a True Love

Our society has gained a liking for lust, and our love of sports, though perhaps not seen at first, reflects these worldly passions. 

Let us first consider that the most popular sport in America today is football.  Everything in football is totally over the top.  From big hits to cheerleaders, modern-day America is described perfectly in this brutal sport.  Football, complete with its marketing schemes and attractively violent play, is exciting, perhaps arousing even.

Baseball represents what America should be.  I understand that performance enhancing drugs are giving the sport a poor reputation, but more than anything, I’m trying to point out that the nature of the sport itself is innocent. 

There are no cheerleaders in baseball. 

There is very little violent contact in baseball, and violent contact is certainly not necessary for the regular flow of the game. 

These are the two greatest ways that I can find outright innocence in baseball where there is none in football.  Baseball can also be compared with other sports, in that it is not as flashy as other sports.

In the hierarchy of sports, basketball is the king of flash.  Players like Dominique Wilkins and Michael Jordan made the highlight reel light up with huge jams and other excessively outrageous play.  Baseball is different in that the flashiest play is a home run, which, in many cases, would have never happened had the ball traveled 5 feet short of the fence. 

In other words, the game is simple and functions easily that way. 

There is also a variety in baseball that replaces the mechanical monotony of other sports.  Every ice rink, basketball court, and football field has the same dimensions in pro sports.  However, every baseball field has its own dimensions.  Other sports cannot boast a Green Monster, an ivy-covered fence, or even just a bowl-shaped outfield (as the Polo Grounds had).  Many ballparks seem to be as unique as those that fill their grandstands. 

 

 

Second Chances

Why do we love baseball so much?

Is it because of the sound of the ball coming off the bat? 

Is it the chess match between the pitcher and the hitter?

These may spark our love, but personally, I find that second chances make baseball an extremely intriguing sport.

Let’s consider the pitcher and hitter.  Each pitcher faces the hitter, and thus starts a new sequence.  The pitcher starts with a fresh count, 0-0, on each hitter, and each inning, the slate is totally and completely wiped clean.  When the leadoff hitter comes up to face the pitcher each inning, there is no one on base, and, obviously, they have a fresh count as stated prior. 

This clean slate is a second chance for the pitcher, either batter by batter or inning by inning.  However, it’s also a fresh start for the batter.  The hitter may strike out in his first opportunity, but in his next three, he can still make good.

This is what makes unlikely heroes so lovable.  If a hitter experiences a season full of injury like Kirk Gibson from 1988, he can still come back and hit a game-winning home run in the World Series (as he actually did!).  Gibson’s hobble around the bases complete with a fist pump as he rounds second remains one of the great pieces of film sports has ever seen. 

So, whether you’re a .350 hitter or a .200 hitter, there’s always more opportunities to make up for past mistakes, because for one at-bat at one point in time, the rest of your season may not matter. 

Just ask Gibson. 

Baseball’s Most Electirc Play

 

“I don’t know why people like the home run so much. A home run is over as soon as it starts…. The triple is the most exciting play of the game.”- George Foster
 
Fans love the home run.  In an age of instant gratification, people flock to the ballparks to witness sluggers crack mammoth clouts for an instantaneous score. 
 
The idea of the home run encourages laziness: many players will scoff at a rookie who sprints the bases after knocking one out of the park.
 
The hitter is encouraged to take a leisurely joy around the bases which he is automatically rewarded.
 
The home run is not baseball’s most exciting play.  The triple is, as Foster says.
 
The triple not only encourages hustle, but requires it. 
 
The idea of instant gratification is in the process of a triple- the batter must work for everything.
 
In the Bible, Jesus says that the poor woman who gives everything she has gives more than the rich who give some, but not all, of their great wealth.  A hitter who gives everything he has for extra bases produces a greater play than the hitter who homers and leisurely rounds the bases.
 
Remember, triples are rarer.  The homer is worth more in runs, but is it really a better baseball play?  Absolutely not.

Relief pitchers: the doctors of baseball

In a way, pitchers are the most enigmatic group of men in sports, but more specifically the middle and long relievers.

Closers often are known as the firemen of baseball, as they are calm under pressure and earn the save.  They are the most glamorous of the relievers, boasting such stars as Mariano Rivera, Trevor Hoffman, Bruce Sutter, and Dennis Eckersley, among others. 

Long and middle relievers are the humble mediators between the starting pitchers and the closers, the bridge in a gap of superstardom.  They are often little-known and serve as a baseball version of a subsistence farmer, pitching to survive and stay out of the limelight.

When is the last time you got a baseball card of a long or middle reliever and got really excited?

As a small-town doctor cures the wounds of the sick without a thought of the slightest repayment, baseball’s middle and long relief pitchers stop the bleeding by stranding runners to prevent big innings.  They give their starting pitcher and teammate to slink back into the dugout and the thoughts of fame and glory rarely cross their minds.

The Virtue of the Walk

If patience is a virtue, then working a walk in baseball is sports’ most virtuous feat.

It takes four pitches, four balls more specifically, to work a walk.  Pitches in a sequence can be extremely tantalizing to offer at.  A high fastball looks often like a beach ball to a hitter, and to hold off of swinging  at a pitch such as this requires the patience of a saint, to use an expression.

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I never understood why a 1-1 or 2-2 count was considered even.  In reality the counts of 1-0, 2-1, and 3-2 are even, since the batter needs to take the same amount of balls to walk as the pitcher does throw strikes to get him out. 

The pitcher may have an unfair advantage in this way, but his is where the batter can take another swing at growing in virtue.  The hitter must take what the rules of the game give to him and do what they can, much like we must work with what the unfairness of life hands to us.