WTNYAugust 04, 2006
Baseball in All Forms
By Bryan Smith

"Baseball is timeless," the back of a shirt I once owned read.

People would ask me why I was so into baseball, a game too slow to keep their interest. My responses, well-prepared, circled around the type of cheesy cliched lines that adorned popular t-shirts like mine. I jumped on response bandwagons.

In truth, looking back at those times, I knew I loved baseball, but I could never properly explain why. Putting your reasons in words was always difficult. This summer, my baseball experiences have been as prolific and eclectic as ever, and it's all starting to make sense to me. I'm starting to develop my own real answer.

Baseball isn't timeless. It isn't like math, a universal language the same in South Africa as it is in Australia, the same in downtown New York City as it is in rural Iowa. Baseball in these locales revolves around the same game, but I love it because it isn't.

Last fall, I was lucky enough to find a ticket to the first game of the World Series. A lifelong Cubs fan, I didn't go thinking the outcome would matter to me. But in U.S. Cellular, the atmosphere captured me in seconds. I remember getting goose bumps during the national anthem, looking around and realizing that I was in the midst of the luckiest moment of my life.

World Series baseball isn't the baseball they play in early August. More importantly, it isn't the same feeling from the stands. When Bobby Jenks entered Game 1, and particularly when he struck out Jeff Bagwell, I was hooked. I was as excited in that moment as I'd been when Mark Prior shut out the Braves in the playoffs a couple years earlier.

After a long winter break from baseball, I returned to the game in the spring, making an annual sojourn with my father to Arizona. We don't trek to Phoenix for the sun or for the golf, but instead fill our schedule with baseball, filling it as much as possible.

Spring Training baseball is a different beast as well. Managers throw strategy to the wind, more concerned with trying things to gauge their team. Superstars are trying to recapture their stroke, altering and tinkering until they find it. Others are playing in desperation, trying with everything they have to make a roster, make an extra 300k, make their pension. Boone Logan made the White Sox.

Only a peripheral college baseball fan, in May I went to my first College World Series regional, watching my preseason championship pick North Carolina host Winthrop, UNC-Wilmington and Maine. I saw scouts drool over Andrew Miller and analyze Daniel Bard, and family cheer for their son/brother/etc like you'll never hear at a Major League park.

As if I have to tell you, everything changes with an aluminum bat. I did see a 21-19 game, living up to the stereotype of the college game. But what I saw, what I loved about college baseball, was to see a game where mistakes are magnified. In a game where errors are much more commonplace than the Majors, college baseball almost always rewards the team that is well coached, plays good defense and pitches well. North Carolina, not so surprisingly, won with ease.

This year, I've seen a dozen minor league games, going from town to town trying to catch a glimpse of the players I have/will rank. Colby Rasmus and Andrew McCutchen. The A's high school trio. Justin Upton and Delmon Young. And more.

It's a surreal experience to go to a game ready to just watch one player. To see baseball with blinders on, watching a player as he runs the bases, watching the third baseman field it only with peripheral vision. Watching how a player reacts to a ball off the bat, not following the ball into a mitt. I struggle with this, but am improving, learning slowly how to properly scout a prospect.

For five games in the summer, I watched the national Team USA, playing against Taiwan and Japan. I saw trick pitching from the Asian teams, I saw scrappy players that went with pitches like few Americans can. I saw Pedro Alvarez, a future first rounder, hit one of the longest home runs I've seen in person. I broke down David Price's weird delivery, and heard the buzz of scouts when Daniel Moskos first took the mound.

This week, I spent two days at the East Coast Professional Baseball Showcase, an event designed by those in the game to watch the best prep prospects on the Atlantic coast. I struggled through 105-degree heat to watch batting practice after batting practice, to see right fielders practice throws to third base, and catchers try to show off their pop times.

Certainly, this experience was the most difficult of all, and it was this that made me realize why I love baseball. This wasn't a 3-strikes, 3-outs type game that we're taught, but a fraction of it. Scouts gained as much from watching a shortstop field grounders and throw to first than they did watch him play against competition. With bits and pieces, the smartest men in baseball could discern prospect from suspect.'

What do I love about baseball? I love two things ...

I love the desperation. A player in search of a ring, a fringe player trying to make the 25-man, a college player on the field for the last time, a prospect attempting to rise above his competiton, a player swinging and pitching for his country, a teenager trying to impress a scout. Baseball isn't the same in Game 1 as it is in a baseball showcase, but the desperation is.

More than anything, I love the fragments of the national pastime. A Michael Main throw from right field. A Julio Borbon triple. Delmon Young's first home run of the season. Daniel Bard's beautiful, easy delivery. Boone Logan's unique, strange one. Bobby Jenks fastball, gliding past Jeff Bagwell's swing. Each moment different than every other, but as beautiful as the one before it.


Wow. Great article.

I can relate.

My son, a senior, played in that regional this spring in Chapel Hill and played in the 21-19 game. That game, perhaps his last competitive baseball game that he would ever play, was completely exhausting to watch. The next day, his college career ended. After being passed over in the draft, he (and the whole family) had to come to grips with the fact that competitive baseball, which had been at the center of all our lives since he was four years old, was over.

Just like that.

Until last week, when he was signed "right out of the blue" and played in his first minor league game yesterday. Now, all of the old feelings are back. All the waiting for the post game phone call. Waiting for the internet to post the score. Or a box score. Or updated stats. Or maybe a newspaper article. It's wonderful, and once again, I'm going to miss it when it's over.

(Fortunately, we're moving our youngest to college this month, where he's a pitcher. So here we go again!)

I watched bits of baseball into college but I got hooked when I realized the strategy within each at-bat... Seeing how pitchers weren't just throwing curveballs and fastballs but setting up the hitters to be looking for something inside and throwing a breaking ball that starts EXACTLY where they want it, only to break away... Every once-in-a-while my wife will look at me with the most confused look as I just uttered, "Nice pitch..." I don't try to explain.

That Jeff Bagwell at-bat made me queasy. I'm not sure how anyone who knew what Bagwell was could think any of that was a good thing. Everyone was embarrassed for him as he was stepping up to the plate, everyone knew what was coming. Watching him trying to catch up to that fighting his horribly ravaged shoulder was like watching the family dog get put to sleep at the vet's.

Not what I call a fond memory.

Thank you for writing this. I'm a young man, 31, who sometimes struggles with the embarrassment of loving the game too much. I can never explain it, and within moments I simply say "Ah, I'm just a nerd, you wouldn't get it." I thank you for adding that word, "desparation" It is the perfect word to describe the game.

I always thought it was the periods of elevated tension that other sports lacked, the knowledge that, without a clock, comebacks were more likely, and the one-on-one of the batter vs pitcher.

nice piece. the desperation in baseball...that's a great aspect of the game that many people don't realize is even there.

i live in japan and play right field for my company's team. as is the norm in japan, we play with a hard rubber ball rather than a normal rawhide, and bats are anything from wood to "soft-core" graphite/aluminum hybrids.
but thanks to an episode when i was a youngster i played basketball all my life, and it wasnt until i turned 30 and joined the company team that i ever played 'organized' ball since i was a kid and felt the burn of a swing-out with RISP, or a rally killing GIDP.

the league is made up of over 20 teams at any 1 time (honda motor co. is a BIG company), with teams fading out, only to be replaced by newly formed ones, among those that are maintained year to year. the majority of teams are all R&D guys. i play on 1 of 2 teams from quality control. there are team names like the Funkys, the Guns, the Rockers, and the Kamikazes with some pretty imaginative uniforms. I'm sure Bryan would root for the Super-Cubs, who wear full Cubbie replica unis with solid blue tops and pinstripe bottoms (the team founder fell in love with the Cubs many years ago while on assignment at a US factory in Ohio as the story goes).

anyway, since we're all company men the rules are somewhat lax. helmets are optional as the ball is rubber, the starting pitcher can play short for an inning and take the mound again later, lineups are how ever many guys show up that day (9 take the field, but 13 may get to hit) cuz we're playing for fun, so obviously there isnt the same desperation as is being referred to like for an ST invitee or playing with bunting on the rafters, but we still keep stats, and wins and losses count, so its baseball all right.

the interesting thing is the immense disparity in some players abilities. the last uniform i wore for example was for the rockford cubs, when we won the winnebago county t-ball championship for 5 to 6 year-olds in '79. but our catcher's last uniform was for honda's pro-am team before injuries and age relegated him to warranty data analysis, while we got some guys who grew up on soccer and have never even played catch! And in this twin-bill we played last month, game 1 was the normally scheduled game vs the Wolves whos game 1 starter could dial it up into the high 80s and had nasty breaking stuff, but game 2 was a rainout make-up vs the Fakers whos starter was in the 50s, both in age and velocity!

thanks to my dad who was a lifelong cubs fan like myself i have always loved this game. but rawhide or rubber, its hard to grasp the nerves and skill that this game requires until you lace em up and take some grounders yourself, or try to lay off a slider leaving the zone, much less try to throw one.

i guess what i love most about baseball other than the obvious reasons is the link it was between my father and i, and is now with my own 3 little cub fans. jeff is 7 and just started pee-wee. colin is 4 and loves to mimic the umpire after a backward K. shawn is 1 and likes drooling on his ichiro bobble-head. we have a lifetime of baseball ahead of us, and just that thought is my daily joy.

but the desperation? even in my rubber-ball company league, the desperation is still a pure truth.
hell you wanna talk about desperation? how about having your young sons hollering at you from the bench as you stand in with a full count late in a tie game after hitting weak grounders in the 2nd and 5th. now THAT is some desperation for you right there!