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Some Truths About Baseball

I used to have a love – hate relationship with baseball, but in recent years it’s evolved into an indifferent – somewhat less indifferent relationship. I played as a kid. My brother’s a big fan and the game occupies as much of my dad’s frontal lobe as eating or sleeping. Back in 1987 I attended enough Giants home games to be named an honorary usher. But somewhere along the line I lost interest…not all interest, but the kind that maintains a constant awareness of pitch counts, even when traveling abroad. I didn’t outgrow the sport. I still believe it’s a beautifully constructed game whose imperfections only lend to its appeal. Arguing against inter league play or the designated hitter is as valid a means of putting a bar idiot in his place as any. And I can still get excited about and follow individual players (the Giants’ pitcher Tim Lincecum being a current example.) I just don’t get as pumped up as I once did. But this doesn’t preclude my knowing more about the game than your average fan. As we’ve reached the halfway mark in the 2008 season, perhaps it’s time to share some insight.

You only get to pick one team per lifetime. A lot of so called “fans” seem unclear on this concept. While it’s perfectly acceptable to follow other teams and players and to root for specific teams once your own has failed to reach post season play, you can’t “adopt” another team as your own. Proclaiming a team one’s own is a rite of passage and something that often occurs on an involuntary level. Typically speaking, your father’s team is your team – although this rule isn’t automatic. It’s OK for adolescents to experiment with “other” teams the same way they might drugs or growing a mustache before they’re ready. But at a certain age, typically in your late teens, you must commit. I’ve committed to practically nothing in my life, and yet I still understand this. I am a Giants fan, end of story. You don’t go away to college in San Diego and “become” a Padres fan. Baseball is about suffering, not reinvention.  And it isn’t like marriage or the church; you can neither weasel nor grow out of it. One life, one team. If this is too difficult to grasp, switch sports or become a Buddhist and put your faith in returning next time as a Mets fan.

Guys over thirty-six should not wear jerseys with player’s names in public. I realize that this is going to dash whatever hope a certain segment of the population has for ever achieving an individual sense of style, but something needs to be said. When a kid or younger person wears a player’s jersey in public it says “I really like this player, and while I realize that any aspirations for a professional sports career are likely delusional, I’m still allowed to dream.” This differs from the intoxicated oaf sporting “25 Giambi” on his back, despite enjoying long standing employment with the local pipe fitters union and being ten years Jason’s senior. OK, you’re a fan .. I get it. And you really like Giambi. Your overt exuberance and ability to almost scream his name correctly after twelve beers already suggest this. Let’s leave the dressing up to the kids. My aversion to this breed of fan may have a knee jerk element and be related to Ken Young, a middle aged white guy from the Giants games of my youth. Young sported an impressive boiler, resembled Barney Rubble, and not only wore a jersey, but a full uniform with batting helmet. The batting helmet would have been the capper (completely disallowed unless you’re Clint Howard in “Gung Ho”) had it not been for one other detail: Young also wore Willie Mays’ name and number twenty-four on his back. Mays was the greatest Giant, and possibly the greatest player, to ever put on a uniform. I wouldn’t know where to begin in listing what was wrong with Ken Young assuming his persona. To this day it’s slanted my stance on the civilian jersey wearer.

You weren’t that great a player in your day. Maybe it’s the pastoral mythology or hanging on to the American Dream, but something about baseball breeds delusion. And among the more delusional offshoots of the game none is as inexplicable as the number of guys secretly harboring the idea that they could have played on some sort of competitive level. These fantasies don’t transfer to football and basketball. You don’t find many middle aged guys sizing up Warren Sapp or Kevin Garnett and thinking “if only I’d stuck with it.” Yet something about baseball engenders this Peter Pan reality substitute. Perhaps it’s because there are still professional baseball players who are constructed like somewhat normal human beings. Although this is an increasingly rare phenomenon – I once attended a game in San Francisco and stood by the clubhouse entrance (a perk for season ticket holders with “Field Level” seats.) These are not small boys, not by any standard. On occasion someone like the above mentioned Tim Lincecum comes around who, despite being five foot ten and a buck-seventy, can throw a baseball at close to a hundred miles an hour. These exceptions may be what make baseball great, but they are far from proof that you could have done it. Standing in the box while this guy threw you one hard curve without giving in to the temptation to bail or collapse would be more than any mortal could hope for.

Let’s break it down: looking back on it, there were several categories with which to associate when you were young. There were the guys who didn’t play, the guys who played but sucked, the guys who fell in to that vast middle range, the guys who were good, and the guys who were among the elite three or four best in your high school. Among these select elite, if you went to a large enough school, there might have been one or two who were good enough to play college ball, and maybe one who was good enough to earn a minor league contract. The odds are that even he, the elite of the elite, never played pro ball. Sure, there are exceptions and somebody had to go to high school with Barry Bonds, but someone had an algebra class with Albert Einstein too. As with this rant, it’s time to let it go.

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