Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Let's re-embrace America's Pastime

I can recall my grandfather and I watching the 1979 ALCS between Baltimore and the California Angels, when Orioles center fielder Al Bumbry slipped and bobbled a fly ball that allowed the Angels to tie the game and eventually win Game 3. We watched every pitch attentively, and because of the pace of the game, we had time to make eye contact, react to each pivotal play and of course give our commentary.

While I adored basketball and football, there was something distinctively different about baseball because it linked the young and old. It was my grandfather recalling when the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles and his memories of the Negro Leagues, it was my uncle trying to convince me that Tommy Davis and Maury Wills were better than Dusty Baker and Davey Lopes ("no way!" i said), it was every kid on my block being dragged down to the local park by their mother to sign-up for Little League because it was a right of passage.

Baseball is indeed special, but the sport has decided to inject a slow-killing poison in its vein that has dissipated interest in the game, especially with African Americans. Kids don't play Little League much any more. They don't sit with their grandfather and watch the ball game. They don't talk about the game's great players past and present. We have increasingly disregarded the sport and it's unfortunate. Covering Major League Baseball for eight years as a sports writer taught me to appreciate the sport again, from the chess-like strategy, to the marvelous skill of scooping the ball at first base or a catcher easily securing a 98 mph pitch skidding in the dirt.

Josh Gibson (below), Satchel Paige and Jackie Robinson (above) made the game beautiful to watch. We didn't care about end zone dances or high-flying slam dunks. That was for another time. For generations, a portion of our minds embraced the methodical game of baseball. When times were simpler, we used rotary phones, didn't have answering machines and actually spent Saturday playing catch in the park. Back in the day when every little boy (and girls, too) treasured that new glove, bought that special glove grease, rubbed into the Jim Rice imprinted into the center (Oh that was me!) and then broke it in by stuffing a baseball in the glove and sticking it under your bed for a week.

I miss those days. I don't see gloves under beds any more. I don't even know if my little brothers or cousins have ever played baseball, yelled, "hey batta swing" or gulped down a Slurpee after a hard-fought Little League win.

What I do know is those days can return. Little boys and girls can spend their Saturday afternoons playing ball and their nights watching the game with their dad or mom or whomever wants to spend quality time with them. They can explain to their son or daughter the hit-and-run or double steal or the art of hitting to the opposite field. We can push aside the controversies, steroids, bench-clearing brawls and overpaid players and remember when the game meant something to us, and hopefully it will mean something to them.

The playoffs have begun, the best time of the season. Every pitch is intense, every inning critical, every player embracing teamwork because their long-term reputations are being built. Think I am kidding? Every time I saw Al Bumbry when I covered the Orioles and he attended an occasional game, I remember my grandfather and I watching that Game 3 and his error and my grandfather telling me the Angels "should thank that Bumbry."

Regardless of how much I try to push the baseball aside and schmooze with basketball and football, baseball becomes beautiful again, and I remember the good times we spend together and I give it another chance.

That's the allure of the game. Don't you remember? Weren't you there? I know I was. That's why I keep coming back.