Joe Posnanski took a weeklong, cross-country trip that covered five cities and more than 10,000 miles in search of what baseball means in 2011. He traveled from Charlotte to Los Angeles and chatted with Vin Scully, from L.A. to New York to witness Derek Jeter's 3000th hit, from N.Y. to Kansas City to watch a game with Bill James in which Justin Verlander's 100-mph heat was topped by the temperature, from K.C. to Phoenix to catch Prince Fielder "uncoil his wonderfully violent swing" at the All-Star Game, and from Arizona to Cooperstown where a bat stored in the archives "down in the bowels of the Hall of Fame" that stuck with him the most. Yes, Wonderboy, the bat Roy Hobbs made from a tree split in half by lightning in the movie The Natural that reminded both Hobbs and Posnanski of their fathers.
THE BAT stays with me. Isn't that strange? I did so many amazing things on this crazy cross-country trip in search of what baseball means in 2011 ...
And so ... why the bat? Why does the bat keep reemerging in my mind, like a summer song that won't stop repeating? It's just a bat. It might not even be regulation size. No one used it to crack his 3,000th hit or smack his 500th homer. This bat was never even used in a major league game, or a minor league game, or a Little League game, or any real game at all.
Still ... Why do I think it's all about that bat?
"Loving Baseball" is Joe at his best. In addition to Scully, Jeter, James, Verlander, Fielder, and Hobbs, Posnanski marvels at the artistry of Adrian Gonzalez's swing, and mentions, in order, Cy Young, Sliding Billy Hamilton, Andre Ethier, Kirk Gibson, Roger Clemens, Willie Mays, Andrew McCutchen, Lance Berkman, Roy Halladay, David Ortiz, Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron, Roger Maris, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Honus Wagner, Robin Yount, Cal Ripken Jr., Ichiro Suzuki, Sandy Koufax, Walter Johnson, Brayan Pena, Gary Sheffield, Roberto Clemente, Johnny Bench, Ozzie Smith, Greg Maddux, Danny Jackson, Jose Bautista, Pete Rose, Jimmie Foxx, Al Kaline, Tony Gwynn, Harmon Killebrew, Lew Burdette, Ralph Terry, and Bill Mazeroski.
So why is it that as I end this trip, I keep thinking about Wonderboy?
...What was I looking for? While in Los Angeles, I heard the awful news about Shannon Stone, a Texas firefighter who brought his son to a Rangers game and fell and died when he lost his balance trying to catch a baseball. In New York, I saw a young man named Christian Lopez grab Derek Jeter's 3,000th hit and then saw his father, Raul, cover him as protection from the crowd. In Arizona, I saw the determined look on Jose Cano's face as he pitched to his son Robinson in the Home Run Derby.
And in Cooperstown, I saw Wonderboy—the bat a boy carved to remind himself of his father. My father worked for most of his life in a sweater factory. When he got home each day—oil on his pants, salami on his breath—we would go to the backyard and play catch. All the while he talked: Get in front of the ball... . Put the glove under your mattress to break it in... . Don't step into the bucket... . Watch how Henry Aaron steps into the ball... . Choke up on the bat with two strikes... . Get back to your feet quickly, like Brooks Robinson... . Remember, it's easier to run in on the ball than to go back.
"They're sending you around to the country to find the meaning of baseball?" he asked.
"Something like that," I said. He looked at me with a mix of disbelief and wonder and, sure, pride. Dad's job was to keep the sweater machines running. It was a clear assignment with a clear mission—plain questions and plain answers and no time for what he always called "baloney."
"Well, baseball is fun, right?" he said.
Baseball is fun indeed.
As the subtitle of the Sports Illustrated article dated July 25, 2011 asks and answers, "What keeps the grand game great? Everything old is new again."