The Life in My Years

An anthology of life

“It is the life-affirming genius of baseball that the short can pummel the tall, the rotund can make fools of the sleek, and no matter how far down you find yourself in the bottom of the ninth you can always pull out a miracle.”
Bill Vaughn, American author and essayist.

Coming out of the concourse at Candlestick Park I gazed on the greenest thing I’d ever seen. I was 8 years old when I caught that first wondrous glimpse of a sea of the most perfect grass you’ll ever lay your eyes upon. To an 8 year old that field seemed boundless. It’s a rite of passage, that first ever professional baseball game. Looking out at the field is only one of the colors of the sensory rainbow of that first game experience, a stamped forever memoir. The smells that you would forevermore associate with a ballgame; the spice of hot dogs and that secret brown mustard you could never find at the grocery store, the pungent odor of onions bursting from the bins at the condiment counter and the malty aroma of sloshing beer.

Oracle from McCovey cove

Oracle Stadium with a smattering of fans in the seats viewed from McCovey Cove. At game time the cove is filled with all manner of boats

AT&T Panorama

The sea of perfect grass. Oracle Stadium, San Francisco

And the sounds. The pregame buzz of the crowd filing in; batting practice wafting up from the field, the crack of the bat, pop of the glove and the players’ banter. And of course there are the vendors, hawking food, drink and souvenirs in loud voices, all calling out in that singular ballgame peddler’s accent as if they’re all from some mythical land with a baseball language all its own.
“Prograaaams. Getcher prograaams heah. Hey-programs.”
“Hot dogs heah. Get-cher red hots.”
“Ice cold beah, heah. Getcher ice cold beah heah.”

That first step out of the concourse slams the senses like a bat crushing a 95 mile an hour fastball.

Filing in

Filing in

Brats on the grill

Brats, sauerkraut, and onions on the grill. Just add an ice cold beer and on a Sunday afternoon this beats anything that a frou-frou 5 star restaurant has to offer.

In 1962 the San Francisco Giants were still relatively new to The City, just 5 years removed from having broken the collective heart of Manhattan, following the rival Dodgers who’d moved from Brooklyn to California.

If you love baseball you don’t forget that first experience and you remember that first opponent. For me it was the Saint Louis Cardinals and Hall of Famers Bob Gibson and Stan Musial. Aside from being awestruck coming out of the concourse I probably did what most kids do at a ballgame; started squirming and whining around the 5th inning, asked for and was granted a limitless ration of junk food just to keep me quiet and negotiated for a souvenir.

During those first years, I left the game with a variety of mementos; pennants for my bedroom wall, big pins depicting a player’s photo and a red, white and blue ribbon poking from the bottom, and a collection of caps. Oddly enough I wanted caps from other teams; I had a Cardinals’ cap, a Cincinnati Reds cap, a Cubs’ cap and a plastic Philadelphia Phillies replica helmet.

But the treasure of all treasures was a baseball autographed by the Giants. It’s the only souvenir that I kept and still possess – thankfully. In those days laser printed phonies weren’t available. Balls were set out in a team’s clubhouse and players would sign them during down times. Years ago I dug it out of a box of stuff and turning it over in my hand, I realized that I was the owner of the autographs of Hall of Famers, Willie McCovey, Juan Marichal, Gaylord Perry and the greatest of them all, Willie Mays.

IMG_0495

Imparting some pregame baseball wisdom

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Brandon Crawford. Some pregame schmoozing with fans

Timmy winds up

Tim Lincecum winds up.

It made up for all the autographed balls that I’d worked for after games and subsequently lost. Those were the days when fans, mostly kids, gathered at the accessible players exit and asked for autographs as the players filtered out. One of my favorite players was Sandy Koufax. I can’t recall how many times I got his autograph on a ball that I would eventually go out and play with and then lose in bushes or down the street or in a pile of junk that made its way to the landfill. I imagine that some lucky soul pulling up hedge trimmings might have come across one of those balls and said, “What idiot let this one get away?”

Sandy Koufax was a pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Dodgers and the Giants. It’s a mutual loathing that reaches back to the late 19th century, 1890 to be exact. It’s a searing contempt between players and players, fans and fans, children and parents and husbands and wives that started in New York and made its way cross country to California. It’s a rivalry that’s sundered friendships and launched household civil wars. The feud between Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots has nothing on the bad blood that exists between Dodger and Giants fans. And while Mary lost her head over her feud with Liz, it isn’t rare that fans figuratively lose their heads over the Dodger-Giant rivalry. This I know from experience because I lived it from childhood to sometime in my 30’s.

Scooping up a low throw

Padres v. Giants. Digging out the throw.

Mom was a San Francisco Giants fan. Over the years I committed a series of infractions that probably gave mom pause to wonder if her real son had been switched out at birth. There was the time that I blew off the family Easter dinner to go to a girlfriend’s family dinner; this one was a real biggie on my rap sheet. There was the battle over long hair that I eventually won. There was Jimmy Hendrix, The Doors and The Iron Butterfly. Oh and don’t let me forget the psychedelic art posters in my room or the time when mom caught her 12 year old son deeply engrossed in a Playboy magazine. She either asked herself where she’d gone wrong or more likely blamed it all on dad.

But of all my perceived felonies the gravest and most heinous was the ignominy of her son being a Dodger fan. It couldn’t have been any worse if the FBI had shown up at the house and arrested me for spying for the commies. Bringing home and wearing a blue cap emblazoned with those two hated letters L. A, was on par with kicking the family dog – maybe worse. The dog would get over it but that cap was the ghastly specter that tormented the household as long as it retained its unwelcome residence.

The beginning of any Dodger – Giants series marked the commencement of all out warfare marked by insults, raised voices and slammed doors that concluded in a mutual silent treatment. And poor dad, who could take baseball or leave it, and he would just as soon have left it, was resigned to act as the umpire.

I can’t say exactly what it was that caused me to mend my ways and renounce the evil empire that was the Los Angeles Dodgers. Maybe I felt that the Dodgers just didn’t resemble the team that I’d loved as a child; Drysdale, Koufax, the Duke, Maury Wills and the Davis brothers had been replaced by faces I couldn’t relate to. That gritty team of the 60’s that consistently came out on top of one run games was replaced by some strange cast of characters out of Hollywood. Grit had been replaced by flash personified by the pretty boy smile of Steve Garvey and his off the field drama. Or maybe I just got tired of being a San Francisco Bay Area reprobate. Whatever it was, sometime in my late 30’s I rejected the boys in blue and adopted the Oakland A’s.

Runner Going

Runner going. Gregor Blanco steals second.

The A’s and I had a somewhat brief tryst. It was always a little bit strained because I never could (and still can’t) accept the American League’s designated hitter. I may have chosen the A’s because at the time the A’s digs were more welcoming than the Giants’ Candlestick Park. “The Stick” as it was often called, along with a colorful lexicon of obscenities, could, on a windy Bay Area night be one of the coldest places on planet Earth. I recall one particularly frigid night when my friend Scott and I rejected beer in favor of hot chocolate. A hospitable fan in front of us fortified our chocolate with a splash or two from his whiskey flask.

The Oakland Coliseum on the other hand was a comfy little field with a center field backdrop of green grass dotted with colorful flowers. And the food at the Coliseum was vastly superior; why settle for a plain hot dog when you could have an Italian sausage brimming with onion and peppers.

I would often show up at the stadium just as the gates opened and then head straight for the sausage vendor and the beer vendor. Once provisioned I would sit in the lower seats and watch batting practice. It was that spiritual sports time when I could enjoy the ball park sacraments of dog and brew and listen to the players’ chatter accompanied by the stadium music of the pop of the glove and the crack of the bat echoing around the near empty stadium. It’s one of the most enjoyable times of an afternoon of baseball.

The ambiance of that park would change when the City of Oakland caved in to Satan and granted Al Davis a remodel that turned that friendly little ballpark into a grotesque abomination in order to lure the Raiders back to Oakland (as it turns out the Raiders would once again screw their fans by moving to Las Vegas).

My affair with the A’s resulted in a dream come true; attendance at not one but two World Series. In 1989 the A’s beat the Giants and in 1990 the A’s made a brief appearance in the fall classic before getting swept by the Cincinnati Reds.

And then baseball jilted me. Betrayed because of greed and vanity. It was the steroid era and the mockery that would stain the record books. Records that stood for years were mere castles of sand smashed by a wave of drug induced performances that Major League Baseball countenanced and fans would debate over for decades. But I was done with it. I was the heartbroken suitor who would never love again.

As the furor was quelled and the suspensions put an end to the sham I started to warm up to baseball. I would eventually shift my allegiance again, this time to the Giants, but there was still one demon to be exorcised – one Barry Lamar Bonds. As long as Barry Bonds dishonored the field I refused to go to a game. To me Bonds was (and is) the face of the gang of transgressors who tainted the record books. Bonds is the thief who stole from Mays, Ruth, Maris and Aaron. As long as he donned a uniform I would boycott the Giants. Baseball and I have made amends. Cora and I started attending games, even taking a vacation to Washington DC to watch the Giants play the Nationals.

Lincecum

Strike three. Take a seat.

Safe at 3rd

Safe at third

Discussion

Talkin’ baseball

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Watching the action

 

At Nationals Stadium

Waiting for game time. Nationals’ Park.

We’ve gone through three World Championships, each one seeming to be improbable as the seasons began. Lately it’s been hard times but not every team can win and most years you have to enjoy the game just for the game itself. As former commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti so eloquently put it;

“[Baseball] breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall all alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops.

Pagan

Angel Pagan on deck.  I know of a few women, my wife among them, who had a serious crush.

Pagan at the plate

Angel Pagan at the plate

Belt waits on the pitch

Brandon Belt waits on the pitch

Javier Lopez delivers

Javier Lopez deals. Most likely a sinker or a slider.

But it isn’t as if there aren’t issues. As with any relationship there are those aggravations, like drinking milk straight from the carton or not wiping the scum off the dishes before putting them in the dishwasher. Baseball is trying to remake itself. The haters will tell you that the pace has become too slow and the games too long.

The truth is, the game hasn’t changed. It’s the way we live that has changed. We have to have everything now and gratification has to be instant so that we can move on and fulfill the next burning thrill and then on to the next and the next. Life has become a constant quest for the instantaneous blast and baseball doesn’t fit into that mold. We don’t have the patience to watch baseball. We don’t have the attention span. We’ve lost the ability, or the desire to concentrate on any one single thing for two hours. We can’t sit down to dinner without checking our phones multiple times to find out what happened in the intervening minutes. No,the pace of the game itself hasn’t changed markedly unless you account for the introduction of more commercials.

And so baseball has decided to tinker once again with the game. No more four pitch intentional walks, limited visits to the mound and the idea that Major League Baseball is toying with, that a relief pitcher must face at least three batters before getting yanked. Has MLB considered what will happen to the length of a game if said relief pitcher gives up a conga line of base runners or can’t find the plate if his mother’s life depended on it? It’s enough to make you want to go nose to nose with the commissioner and argue the call while kicking infield dirt on his shoes. For now I’ll stand in there and wait to see what pitch Major League Baseball decides to throw.

Whitside

Of all my baseball photos this one of catcher Eli Whiteside taken as the game was winding down might be my favorite. Often maligned as the most ignorant and least talented, catchers have to be the most savvy and absorb the most wear and tear. Here Whiteside shows the weariness of the journeyman catcher.

Pretenders

Parting shot. No these are neither Buster Posey or Tim Lincecum

Photos were taken between the 2010 and 2016 baseball seasons at AT&T (now Oracle) Stadium in San Francisco, The Oakland Coliseum, and Nationals’ Park in Washington D.C. 

6 thoughts on “The Genius of Baseball

  1. Scott Blake says:

    That was nicely done, tells about all one needs to know about why people love baseball. Your first game was a year before mine, which was in 1963 at Candlestick vs. the Cincinnati Reds. It was Pete Rose’s rookie year and he seemed to have an endless supply of energy. That first look at the field casts an indelible image in memory. What made it so stunning a sight in those days was that most people watched games on TV on black and white sets.

    My first two favorite teams were the Dodgers and the Cleveland Indians, the latter especially odd considering that I’ve never lived in Ohio. Sandy Koufax and Wes Parker were the two main catalysts for me, the incomparable pitcher and the flawless-fielding first baseman. I got away from the Dodgers for pretty much the same reason as you did. The teams in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s didn’t seem interesting to me. I started liking the Giants in ’86, the rookie year of Will Clark. Watching Will the Thrill at the plate was immensely entertaining. When he just missed on a pitch, fouling it straight back, he would glare at the bat while snapping it forward. I never got away from the Indians, partly because they for me epitomized the impossible dream, much as the 1967 Red Sox did for so many New Englanders. I’ve always identified with the Peanuts character Charlie Brown and for many years being a fan of the Tribe has been like a baseball version of Charlie Brown, with his endless optimism that Lucy won’t pull the football away when he runs up to kick it.

    I liked the A’s, primarily because it meant I could see the Indians play locally and partly because the Oakland Coliseum was much preferable to the hideous cold and wind of Candlestick. I remember that game when we eschewed beer for hot chocolate. The Mets were playing the Giants and the main attraction was the pitching matchup, the young phenom Dwight Gooden for the Mets and the veteran Vida Blue for the Giants. I also remember walking around through the stands to keep the blood circulating. It was so backwards that the weather for 49ers games at Candlestick was usually quite pleasant, which was rarely said about the weather during Giants games. The Coliseum wasn’t a great ballpark but it was better than Candlestick. The remake they did to satisfy Al Davis and the Raiders turned it into a piece of junk, a hideous mistake. It didn’t help that the Giants finally got a jewel of a ballpark built to replace Candlestick, such a magnificent ballpark that Roger Angell waxed rhapsodic about it in a memorable article in the New Yorker.

    The days when fans could watch batting practice have all but disappeared. What has also disappeared is the auditory ambiance of the ballparks, being surrounded by the sounds of the game. It has been replaced by almost constant blaring music, mostly bad music, played whenever there is a brief stoppage in play. It’s not quite as bad as is done in the NHL, where stoppages cue up blasting hard rock right up to the moment of puck drop. What makes it seem more annoying in baseball is that the sounds of the game are part of the game’s charm.

    What you wrote about the average person’s need for constant sensory gratification is a huge part of the reason for the constant noise. People now can’t stand still in a grocery line for 30 seconds without playing around with their phones. Go into any restaurant and you’re liable to see people at tables ignoring each other in favor of their precious phones.

    That photo of Whiteside is a classic. The thing I’ll always remember about him was when the Giants finished their 2010 World Series parade with festivities at S.F. City Hall. Whiteside was wearing a Grateful Dead t-shirt.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Your writing reminds me of Jean Shepherd. That’s about the highest compliment I can pay.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Paulie says:

      Wow. That’s high praise indeed.
      Thank you.
      I discovered Jean Shepherd during my middle and high school days when I had my nose in those Playboy magazines that pissed my mom off so much.
      I actually did read the Shepherd pieces. After I was done with the pictures that is. Being in my teens Shepherd probably came in a distant second to the pictures. 😏

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I completely agree. On the other hand, not withstanding his position in Hefner’s monthly opus, I was introduced to Jean Shepherd through his column in the Car and Driver magazine, of all places.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Carl Arnold says:

    Woah Oracle looks beautiful! I’ve always wanted to take the trip out there. I love your comment about how the game hasn’t changed, its just the fact that we’re more of an instant-gratification society today. I wasn’t around baseball years ago as I’m only 23, but I don’t see anything wrong with how the game is currently played. I love every piece of the game and could watch a 3 1/2 hour game with no issue at all. Its the little things that make me love it. Last night I was at Fenway watching the Red Sox and the Rays play and I was amazed by how effortlessly Kevin Keirmaier makes fielding seem. And all he was doing was having a catch with the left fielder! Its just those minor details that make me appreciate and love the game and its refreshing to hear someone else feel the same way about the game

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Paulie says:

      Great comment Carl. Thank you.

      Yep, Oracle is a great place to watch a game. While it can get chilly when the breezes blow it isn’t nearly as cold as Candlestick. It is always a good idea to bring a jacket but if you catch it on a warm day or evening it can’t be beat.

      With the Giants struggling the way that they have been this is as good a time as any to catch a game if what you’re looking for are good seats at a good price. I saw some seats on Stub Hub located in the lower box infield for 21 dollars. I imagine that once the Giants start the firesale (Bumgarner? Belt? Crawford? Panik? Probably never Posey) you could almost get paid for taking a ticket.

      In decades past, I can’t think of many changes to baseball that either lengthened or shortened the game with the exception of the recent abominations. They lowered the mound and they’ve tinkered with the “liveliness” of the ball and those have nothing to do with the length of the game.

      I can’t believe the intentional walk rule. It is absolutely absurd. It changes the possibilities of the game. What if one of the 4 intentional walk pitches was to get past the catcher with runners on? That possibility has now been removed. I believe that it was Willie Mays who managed to hit an intentional walk pitch for a base hit when the pitch leaked to close to the plate.

      At 23 years of age I hope that MLB doesn’t completely destroy the game for you as it seems on track to do.

      At 65, I feel fortunate to have seen some of the greats of the game; Mays, Rose, Clemente, Spahn, Gibson, Banks, Ryan, Koufax. I remember pitching duels that ended in one run games with pitch counts well above 100. It was an honor to see those players.

      I was actually not much of a baseball player as you have been. Tried one season and declared myself a better runner so I stuck to distance running. I do remember as a kid playing some pick up games and playing games like three flies up and hot box (pickle).

      I have one more baseball post brewing about the special relationship between a glove and its owner. Hopefully you’ll check it out as well as some of my other posts.

      I’ve visited your blog but I am having trouble following it. I’m getting an error message when I try to subscribe and you don’t seem to have a follow on Word Press widget.

      Thank you again for visiting.

      Like

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