“The strongest thing that baseball has going for it today are its yesterdays.” -Lawrence Ritter
Yes, the late Lawrence Ritter, who wrote about economics, baseball, and often both, was absolutely correct. Baseball is a game that builds its fortunes on the building blocks of its yesterdays. It is rich with tradition like no other sport.
I’m a traditionalist, in the purest sense of the word when it comes to baseball. The less dynamic, the less intricate, the more old-fashioned, the better. There is a perception that the game was better, simpler, years ago. And I agree.
As much as I love the game today, even with the bumps in the road that have threatened its integrity, I envy those who were around to watch it in its heyday. When players played for mere pittances and for the true love of the game.
I found that era, if only for four days, in Arizona last week.
It was an era where ballparks were quaint, players were friendly, staff workers volunteer their time, and organizations remember just who it is that pays everyone’s salaries – the fans. There are giveaways, 50/50 raffles, and large groups are thanked over the scoreboard and the loud speaker for their patronage.
Players interact with fans in so many ways. Ways that are absent during the season. Players walk to the stands to sign autographs. They look for family members in the stands. They joke with fans between innings, and even during the game, at times. They become human.
As [Cubs pitching prospect] Tony Zych made his way toward the stands to greet his parents who were sitting a few seats over from us, I said to him, “I look forward to seeing you in The Show soon, Tony”. I don’t know who was more surprised. Zych, that I knew who he was, or me, that he walked right over to me, shook my hand and said “Thank you. You really know who I AM?”. He then proceeded to take a picture with my two sons….. BEFORE he made his way over to his parents.
As I mentioned on World Series Dreaming’s Facebook page last week, Josh Hamilton, the former AL MVP, who has had a lifetime of trials and tribulations, spent the 7th, 8th, and 9th innings ON THE FIELD in foul territory, plus another 20 minutes after the game signing balls, scorecards, hats, and talking with fans. He stood there for well over an hour, just hanging out with the fans, and talking baseball. He joked with fans during the game. Not in between innings or outs. In between pitches.
After jokingly chiding him about the need to get the rotation into shape, I told pitching coach Chris Bosio that he may have to jump into the rotation if they can’t get it going. “You look like you’ve still got it”, I joked. To which he quickly kidded back, “How’s your breaking stuff?”. I shot back that not even [world renowned surgeon] Dr. Jobe could fix what I’ve got.
Coaches, players, and fans seemed to have a closer bond.
There were no exploding scoreboards and 50,000 seat stadiums. There were no rude staff members searching your bags as you enter the stadium as if you were trying to smuggle in a nuclear weapon. No, these men and women were mostly retirees, snowbirds, if you will, who volunteer their time as they prepare to head back to Chicago and other Midwestern cities in the coming weeks.
Most of the stadiums are uber-kid friendly. Many have little baseball diamonds equipped with whiffle bats and balls for the kids to play on before, during, and after the games.
After the games, the doors to the players’ locker rooms are usually in an area where fans can wait for some of their favorites to come out and hopefully sign an autograph or two. There’s a line of autograph-seekers just outside the players’ parking lot, as well, where players stop in their cars and sign autographs for the fans.
And they do it all with a smile.
There’s a different feeling in Spring Training. No, the games don’t mean much, and by the 7th inning, there are a lot of number 87’s, 94’s and 98’s playing the field.
But there’s so much more to it.
Conversations between the players aren’t drown out by 45,000 other voices. You can hear them talking about the hotel, or yesterday’s pitcher’s knuckle curve, or the whack job in section 108. Players like Marlon Byrd didn’t necessarily come over and sign autographs or talk one-on-one with fans, but he did put on a show for the fans every time he took the field, whether it be running full speed out to center as David DeJesus tries to lead him with the perfect “pass” on the run, or running backwards and seemingly “taking in” the crowd, the players seemed to enjoy it more.
It’s seems less a business and more for fun.
Even Tony Campana, who has every reason to be nervous as Joe Mather continues his assault on what seemed to be Campana’s 5th OF spot, a seeming lock at the beginning of Spring Training, was jovial, kind, funny, and willing to break from the seriousness of the pre-game stretch to dig through someone’s equipment bag to search for a ball to throw to a little guy or girl.
All of the games throughout the Phoenix area start at the same time and end roughly the same time. The restaurants near the ballpark are filled with fans wondering what part of Chicago you grew up in, and how the little guys liked Spring Training. You exchanged pleasantries with total strangers four or five times before your dinner ended.
And no one felt like it was an interruption of their dinner. We were all happy to be part of that special group who left their worries and cares behind in their hometown for a few short days, and got to see their respective teams play the game.
Yeah, I went back 50 years last week. I went back to a time where the fans got every penny’s worth and a fantastic day of entertainment. Win or lose, you didn’t mind because the experience was more important than the game. No one seemed to care how their ace pitched that day. No one cared if their favorite player went 3-for-3 or 0-for-3.
They were within arm’s reach, and that was all that mattered.
After Sunday’s game against the Indians, my sons and I loitered around just a little longer than usual. The entire stadium had emptied, and staff was kindly asking us to head for the exits.
We knew that the weekend we had waited for all year was over. We walked as slowly as we could to the car, not wanting it to end. We talked about players like Reed and Ian as if they were friends. Yes, it had become THAT intimate.
For four days, we had become part of their world. Not from the third level of the stadium, looking at them as specks. No, we were right there, 10 feet or less from them, our heroes. 10 feet from the men who make us smile every summer, break our hearts every fall, and are one of the reasons that every father and son are able to form a common bond that can never be broken.
10 feet from the men that we thought we could be when we were our kids’ ages. 10 feet from the guys who are greater than the President of the United States, or any astronaut, or the richest man in the world.
We shared tips of the caps and smiles, and even a laugh or two with the greatest men in the world – our Chicago Cubs – at ground level.
Find me something greater, I dare you. You’ll be searching for a long time.
As I drove home, my boys fast asleep in the back seat, and me alone with my thoughts, I wondered how I could make this trip last longer next year. What else could we do? Where else could we go?
And at that’s when I realized that 30 years from now, when my boys are grown up, they might not have the 5 major league baseballs that they got, or the roughly 15 autographs, or programs from 3 different games. It wasn’t the endless hot dogs, nachos, snow cones or peanuts that they’ll remember.
It was the experience. It was the time we spent together. It was watching their dad watch HIS heroes and suddenly making them THEIR heroes, that was going to be what they remembered.
And as I wiped the tears from eyes, I swore that this would be the trip, OUR trip, every year.
I feel sorry for the people who say baseball is “just a game”. Those are people who’ve never spent a Spring Training with their sons.
To those I say, it’s more. So much, much more….