Sunday, April 8, 2012

One strike away

It's the first weekend of the baseball season. For me, there isn't the usual rush of excitement, hope and anticipation. Instead, I'm looking backward to the last game of the Rangers season, which ended with our boys one strike away... One strike away. Maybe that's why I had to step away from the plate, take a timeout and think about my next play. As a sports fan, you are almost always one strike away. It's the gambler's hope: the next card, one more pull on the one-armed bandit, another lottery ticket. We're consumers of hope and dreams, fools easily separated from our money.
Or, maybe not.
There's much to love about attending a baseball game, sitting in a sun-drenched seat along the left field foul line, letting your gaze drift around the diamond, that heavenly, velvety green carpet dotted with the gleaming white bases. Attended in person, the game is not just about winning. It's also about beauty.
Like most true baseball fans, I've always loved this time of year. Growing up in Pittsburgh, I would avidly read the sports section, looking for news about the new hitters and pitchers and seeing how the old veterans were coming along. I was about 11 or 12 when two rookies broke into the starting lineup for the Pirates: Richie Hebner at 3rd base and across the diamond, Al Oliver at first. Bob Prince, the voice of the Buccos, quickly nicknamed Oliver "Scoop" for his uncanny ability to pickup balls thrown in the dirt to first. And he regaled his listeners with stories of how Richie Hebner got strong as a teenager digging graves. My mind reeled in delight imagining Hebner several feet down in the ground, his spade swinging up and over his head, dirt flying.
Years later, after my dad retired, he and mom decided to move to Sun City Center, just east of Tampa, where they joined my Uncle John in the sunny retirement community. For me, it was an opportunity to go to Spring Training. I visited them in the spring of 1987 and I remember going to a game with Dad. It was either in Bradenton or Sarasota -- maybe a half-hour's drive from Sun City. The Pirates were playing the Phillies. We sat in the bleachers along the right field line. At one point, I pointed out to dad that we were watching at least two or three future Hall of Famers: the Phillies hard-hitting third-baseman Mike Schmidt and wicked southpaw, Steve Carlton; and the Pirates superb "five-tool" outfielder Barry Bonds. (It was still more than a decade before the steroids scandals engulfed Bonds.) It was an ordinary, meaningless spring training game -- and yet one so significant to me that I still remember it vividly
25 years later. The game brought Dad and I together, and old-school father whose character was molded by the Great Depression and World War II, and a quick-to-anger son still trying to forge his own identity. Our awkward, volatile relationship was still recent history. The game gave us something to focus on beyond ourselves, a warm, sunny afternoon watching grown boys play a game of baseball.
So that's what I am remembering this weekend, the beginning of the 2012 baseball season. Go Rangers. I won't be watching you on television this year, but I'll be paying attention. Play well.

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