Archives for posts with tag: baseball

MAJOR LEAGUE TRYOUT

Is there a little boy (or little girl) who has ever thrown a baseball who hasn’t dreamed of the day the scouts come to watch him, if only for a moment? During the countless childhood hours I spent throwing a ball against a wall, I imagined performing in front of clipboard-carrying men in numerous ways. The dream sometimes evolved into making diving catches in front of thousands, or signing autographs for long lines of adoring fans. Occasionally, the dream involved hitting the World Series-winning home run. But first, always, the sense of being discovered by scouts, the sensation of BEING the diamond in the rough.

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Even as a ten-year-old, I never seriously envisioned myself a professional baseball player. Still, my imagination had to chew on SOMETHING while I threw the ball against the wall, over and over and over. Eventually, thanks to my solitary practice, I developed an extraordinary level of control. As a high school senior, I pitched 45 innings and walked only one batter. But the ability to “control” my pitches constituted my only big league ”tool” — there are at least four others I didn’t have – a pitcher who excels beyond high school must throw with velocity, movement, deceptiveness, command of several different pitches, such as a fastball, curve, and slider, AND control. Against accomplished hitters, to have control without the other attributes is called a batting practice machine.

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*****

By age sixteen, my imagination was even less likely to take major league flights of fancy. I fully accepted my status as a solid shortstop and pitcher for a weak high school that rarely produced a college player, let alone a professional. Over summers, I played for a team in West Philadelphia sponsored by the American Legion a step or two more accomplished than my high school team, but still a bottom feeder in the ocean of baseball talent.

Despite my sense of reality, my heart fluttered when my summer coach, a man whose only memorable trait was to sport a perennially open fly, called me aside after a game to ask me to attend a special practice the next afternoon. He said, affecting nonchalance: “The Dodgers will be there.”

“What Dodgers?” I asked, as though there were numerous kinds.

“The Los Angeles Dodgers, their local scout,” he said, a broad smile melting his cool.

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My eyes widened with excitement and disbelief, until he added: “You’ll cover shortstop for Jeff Leonard’s tryout.”

“What about ME?” I said.

“Well, he won’t be there for you, of course” he said. “He’s looking at Jeff.”

I let out a deep breath. NOW, I understood.   My face red with embarrassment, I felt like an idiot for reacting like the scout was coming to evaluate me. Fortunately, in his own excitement, the coach hadn’t focused on my naïve reaction. He’d already moved on to boast to several nearby adults: “Hey, I got the Dodgers coming out tomorrow.”

*****

Jeff Leonard was notionally a teammate of mine. But I’m certain he’d never bothered to learn my name. He never came to practices and rarely attended games. His appearances were like events after which you said: “Did that really happen?” When he came, he stood or sat by himself, aloof, until it was his turn to bat. On defense, he covered center field with silent efficiency. I’m not certain Jeff was arrogant or unfriendly; maybe he was just shy. But he certainly appeared unapproachable. As a seventeen-year-old, he carried himself like a world-weary adult, a man among boys.

Jeff, we were repeatedly told by our coach, was a superstar, a special talent. He attempted to salve hurt feelings by players displaced by Jeff’s appearances with an insider’s tone of voice, generally along the lines of:   “Listen fellas, we’re lucky to have Jeff whenever we do. He splits his time between several teams and some are way above our level.   He also has individual workouts for the benefit of professional scouts.”

Our collective sense of jealousy was mostly, but not entirely, satisfied with a sense of awe.

*****

When I arrived at the field that humid summer afternoon in 1972, I was surprised to see only three other teammates besides Jeff. I was instructed to stand at shortstop, the others were placed deep in left and center fields, and our catcher took his spot behind home plate. An otherwise nondescript middle-aged man explained he would pitch to Jeff, but his striking blue Dodger cap captivated my 16-year-old eyes like the world’s largest sapphire.

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Our coach and a man I assumed was Jeff’s dad stood next to the batting cage along with two strangers who also wore Dodger caps. They held the clipboards I’d always imagined and one held a stopwatch on a string around his neck. Jeff stood next to the batting cage, solemn as always, apparently unfazed by proximity to gatekeepers to the Pantheon of baseball greatness.

I knew Jeff starred at football as well as baseball in high school. His chiseled physique was unlike the skinny frames of the rest of us. Yet, his statistics when he played for our team were mediocre.

“What makes Jeff so special?” asked a teammate whose position in the lineup disappeared whenever Jeff appeared.

“Jeff,” the coach explained, “can run like the wind, can throw twice as far as you can, and when his bat makes contact, the ball takes off like it was launched by a bazooka.”

“Is it fair that he doesn’t come to practice?” asked the kid.

“This is baseball,” said the coach. “It ain’t democracy.”

I happened to know that Jeff’s bat didn’t make contact all that often. I’m sure his batting average was lower than mine. But scouts, I knew, looked for those elusive “tools,” the ones I lacked. A smooth swing, like a pitcher’s control, could be developed, but power, running speed, height and strength – those qualities derived more from nature than nurture. Even when Jeff sauntered on and off the field like he was bored, and slouched on the bench like he hadn’t slept in days, there was nothing sluggish about his swing.

*****

Thwack, thwack, thwack went the baseballs as Jeff pounded the easy pitches over my head. He didn’t hit any ground balls to shortstop but I received the returned balls from the outfield and, in turn, tossed them to the scout. I tried to make eye contact with him. Nothing doing. I tried to scoop the throws from the outfield with such style that the other two Dodger scouts couldn’t help but notice. Nothing doing.

After about fifteen minutes, the scout told Jeff to rest for a moment and told my other teammates they could come in while he conferred with his assistants.   After a moment, he said to me: “You stay at shortstop. We’re gonna have Jeff run down some fly balls and then hit you as the cutoff man.” (For the uninitiated, this means Jeff would show off his power and accuracy by throwing to me after his catches at full speed.) Jeff jogged past me to the outfield with his glove and one of the other men brandished a bat with practiced expertise. “Be ready, little man,” I think Jeff whispered to me as he passed. But like everything else about Jeff, I wondered: “Did he really say that?” The scout proceeded to launch balls to Jeff while I relished the renewed chance to become noticed.

I had to admire Jeff’s smoothness in tracking down the fly balls. Up, back, to the side, he made everything look easy. His throws seemed life threatening to me; never had he or any of our other outfielders put as much power and accuracy into their cutoff throws. “Jeff DOES care about this tryout,” I said to myself, as another ball crashed into my glove and burrowed down to my palm, now numb from repeated blows.

“Wow, that’s incredible,” exclaimed the scout after one particular laser-like throw battered my hand.

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I wanted to take off my glove and count my fingers but I didn’t want the scout to think I couldn’t handle such throws routinely. Fortunately, just as I reached the breaking point of my pain threshold, the scout motioned Jeff to come in, and said to me: “Okay, kid, that’s enough. Thanks. We’re just gonna check Jeff’s speed.”

My efforts in front of the Dodgers were at an end. All three Dodger scouts gathered at first base and timed Jeff’s speed around the bases. My teammates and I watched from the bleachers as a new, deeply motivated Jeff appeared before us. We’d heard about his abilities, but in front of these men, he appeared to have been struck with a lightning bolt of professionalism. His hitting had impressed me; his throws had blasted me; but his running was beyond anything I’d ever seen close-up, in person.

*****

My tryout experience was over. Personally, it was anti-climactic. But I read in the local paper the next day that Jeff had signed a contract and even received a bonus. He left West Philadelphia for California to play in the Dodgers’ minor league system. I didn’t think I’d ever hear more of Jeff Leonard since most high school age signees never make the major leagues. Approximately five years later, however, Jeff debuted in the big leagues with the Dodgers and proceeded to have a long and successful career, chiefly with the Houston Astros and San Francisco Giants. It was marked by a peculiar string of run-ins with teammates, management and opponents alike. According to my Google research, Jeff chose the nickname “Penitentiary Face” for himself! Still, Jeff Leonard had admirers. For a time, he became a team captain. And in what can only be called “major league irony,” he now works in public relations for the Giants. Who woulda thought?

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OPENING DAY

I failed to watch a baseball game today. I tried, but after two innings, I found the pace unbearable. As for viewing sports, I’ve become used to the excitement of basketball or the uninterrupted flow of soccer. My inability to sit and concentrate, as each pitch hits the catcher’s mitt and, in turn, is analyzed into submission with the high-tech tools of modern television coverage, disappoints me. I wonder if I’ve become unable to appreciate the slower-paced, nuanced aspects of life. I fear I’m no longer a person who can “stop to smell the roses.” Perhaps, I’ve “given in to the frenetic pace of modern life.” I wonder, am I a traitor to my younger self?

*****

Baseball played a huge part in my early existence.  I recall being exposed to basketball and to football, to hockey and to tennis. But only baseball captured my imagination. And when I say imagination, I mean it. My best, or, at least, most dependable friends in a neighborhood devoid of children, were named Sookie, Musselemy and Fireball Conky. Each loved baseball as much as I did and were available to play every day. They didn’t exist in a physical sense.

I’ve hesitated to mention my three friends in previous writing lest I reveal a major psychosis. But an hour of research has convinced me that, if not quite “normal,” having imaginary friends in the first decade of life is not unusual. And, no, they didn’t accompany me to high school. By the time I joined a little league team at nine with real, live teammates, my imaginary playmates were absent from my daily thoughts. I admit, however, that when I pitched side-armed, like Fireball Conky, or blasted a ball far, like Musselemy, their characteristics occasionally crossed my mind.

*****

Every fan remembers attending their first major league baseball game. At least, I expect they do. Mine was opening day, 1964. The Phillies played the Mets, and my mother took me to Connie Mack Stadium to see it.   I recall her paying a quarter to a street urchin straight out of Dickens to “watch our car” a few blocks from the stadium.

I couldn’t have been more excited and nervous, both about the game and the fate of the car, respectively. My fears about the car disappeared, however, when I stepped through the stadium concourse and beheld the shocking expanse of green grass before me, brilliant even in the early spring chill of North Philadelphia. I’d never seen anything so beautiful.

As to the game, Roy Sievers was the Mets’ third baseman and Roy McMillan was their shortstop. Funny, I thought, to have two guys named Roy. The Phillies had a hotshot rookie third baseman named Richie Allen and a left fielder, Wes Covington, whose tongue lolled permanently outside his mouth. We sat behind third base, which might explain why I recall the players on that side of the field.

Only five years short of its overdue demolition, Connie Mack Stadium led the world in support poles – you had to crane your neck around them in order to follow occasional moments of action. I wore my baseball glove the entire game, of course, in the hopes of catching a foul ball. Even at age 7, I was aware of the remoteness of my chances. But, just as an atheist might wonder “what if I’m wrong?” I remained ready, just in case.

The final score was 5-3. I think the Phillies won though it was less important to me than simply being there. I now know the 1964 Phillies were to experience a disastrous, Titanic-like sinking six months later, when they lost ten games in a row and tumbled out of first place on the last weekend of the season. In April, with that particular iceberg still invisible, we soaked in optimism and the promise of warmer days.

*****

In that era, my passion for baseball lasted year-round, indoors and out. Sitting cross-legged on my bedroom carpet, I played “spinner baseball” for hours. The board game, which I’d received as a birthday present, consisted of a piece of round cardboard with a metal arrow in the middle. For each batter in a line-up of real or imaginary players, I smacked the “spinner” with my finger and it circled, like a tiny roulette wheel, until it stopped on a result, be it fly out, ground out, strikeout, single, double, triple, walk or home run. I drafted fantasy teams of real and imagined players and kept meticulous, hand-written records on pieces of cardboard obtained from my father’s dry-cleaned shirts. Little did I know I’d hit upon a concept that would, fifty years later, become a national obsession. This activity made me a savant at figuring batting averages in my head. Did that help my career thirty years later when I estimated mortgage payments? Absolutely.

Outdoors, winter didn’t stop my exertions. Unless it rained or snowed significantly, I threw a ball against a target on the back wall of our house every day. I threw even if I had to shovel two or three inches of snow to access my imagined pitching mound. As a result, by the time I reached high school, I had major league control. If only my pitches also had major league speed, movement and spin. In an effort to develop those side benefits of arm strength, I spent the winter of my senior year throwing a heavy softball against the wall. It weighed twice as much as a baseball. As I’d hoped, my velocity soared when I switched back to a baseball in the spring. Alas, my naïve and unprofessional training regimen also ruined the tendons in my elbow and, in short order, my baseball career.

*****

Even before my elbow woes had moved me from a pitcher to an underhand-throwing outfielder, my high school playing career was dispiriting. I was the MVP for two years at the Friends’ Academy, but that was an accomplishment so easily achieved as to be embarrassing. My teammates matched their lack of ability only with their lack of interest. The main benefit I derived was that the coach was also my math teacher, and he graded compassionately due to my crucial contributions to our rare victories.

When I headed to college, I considered myself a baseball player who also played soccer “to stay in shape.” After success on the soccer field in the fall and continued elbow woes in the spring, however, I reluctantly put away my mitt. Thereafter, several factors caused my childhood love of baseball to dissipate to no more than an occasional glance at the standings in a newspaper. Sixteen major league teams in my youth now totaled thirty.   Due primarily to free agency, players were hard to track. As an adult, with work, family and other interests, baseball no longer had room in my life. As a parent, I thought my children might share my childhood passion; all three pronounced baseball “boring.”

*****

Why is the game now so unwatchable for me? I thought back to my viewing habits in the 1960’s, from about age six to eleven. All week, during the spring and summer, I eagerly anticipated the once-a-week televised game. I awoke on Sunday with sweaty palms and pounding heart, excited for the 1:00 p.m. start. I’d set myself up on the lounge chair in the den in front of our rabbit-eared, sixteen-inch black-and-white. I’d carefully place a tall iced coffee beside me on a tray table for two hours of entertainment. I remember the jingle for Ballentine Beer played between every inning.

Byrum Saam and Richie Ashburn were the Phillies’ announcers. When they spoke, I felt I was sitting at the stadium with two patient and friendly men with inexhaustible knowledge to impart. Their conversations meandered from anecdote to anecdote and only occasionally focused on the game action that unfolded before them at a leisurely pace. They allowed me to listen to their conversation and secure for myself a place on a continuum that encompassed the past, the present and, I expected, the future. There were no exploding scoreboards in the early 60’s, no hi-tech analysis, and few replays. In the background noise, amidst sparsely filled stands, you heard vendors hawking popcorn.

*****

Besides the glitz, noise and technology of modern broadcasts, what’s changed?   Among many factors, batters adjust their gloves and elbow pads, accouterments that didn’t exist in 1963, between each pitch. They also repeatedly step away from the plate, though I read that baseball is trying to curtail that habit in order to lop a few minutes from the bloated, three-hour games. Pitchers dawdle and shake off signs from the catcher. Batters perceive more value in patience than in power, watching pitches, fouling them off. The cumulative effect is to lengthen the game. Add commercial breaks between innings that are now twice as long, and you have not so much a viewing opportunity as an ordeal.

In addition, there’s nothing special about seeing a game on television. Cable broadcasts all 162 games a season for every team. ESPN endlessly replays notable hits or catches.   Even the umpires’ calls are subject to review. Yes, it’s good to “get the call correct,” but some of the mystery and chance has been taken from baseball. There’s no reason to watch for three hours – the highlights will be viewable at the touch of a button.

To see a game in person, one pays more for a decent ticket than for a Broadway show. Most seats are filled with corporate guests, not a child and his parent. With few exceptions, the modern stadiums are filled with artificial noise and massive electronic scoreboards. Every possible statistic is provided to the fan. As in a modern bowling alley where the score is calculated electronically, there’s no reason to invest personal calculations to the experience.

The players are no longer the “everyman” of physical proportions they seemed to me in 1964. Now, they are millionaires enclosed in bodies sculpted by nutrition, science and sometimes more. How ironic that they appeared like gods to me when I was young. Now, they strike me as terribly human, whenever their public relations handlers let them down.

Based upon my analysis, I have decided to absolve myself of guilt. I’m not a traitor. Under worthy circumstances, I’m able to slow things down.   Mostly, it’s baseball that’s changed.