Spring has always been my favorite time of the year because of the warmer weather, the rebirth of the grass and the flowers, and the start of baseball season. As a boy, I absolutely loved the smell of fresh, moist grass in the infield as we practiced outside for the first time, and I truly enjoyed reading the reports from spring training as Mickey Mantle and all my other favorites prepared for a new season. Unfortunately, the spring of 2020 has been so different.
Yes, the grass and the flowers are beginning to reappear, but due to the virus, baseball has been put on hold. The high-school and college seasons have been canceled. The Major League season has been postponed. Even a game of catch in the local playground has been discouraged. The reality is a tough adjustment for fans everywhere.
Recently, one of my former students admitted that he missed the game so much that he asked all his Facebook friends to post baseball pictures to help him through the interim. In addition, the television stations are broadcasting not live games but replays of historic contests. And since there are no games to cover, the sports section of our local newspaper has been cut in half and relegated to the last few pages of the “Local” section. Fortunately, some of us still have our baseball souvenirs, and as I have expressed periodically during these past few years, souvenirs tell stories. Let me share a few stories about my Jackie Robinson baseball bat from the early 1970s when I played for my alma mater, Siena College in Loudonville, New York.
This bat, modeled after the one used by the man who broke the Major League color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers in the late 1940s, is unusual today for a few reasons. First, the bat is made of wood. Fifty years ago, of course, everyone was using wooden bats, but today, aluminum and metal bats have taken over, especially at the lower levels where finances are tight, and youth leagues need bats that won’t crack if the inexperienced youngsters try to hit while holding the bat improperly.
Next, you’ll notice that my Genuine 33-inch Louisville Slugger (R17) has some athletic tape near the handle. The tape is there because this bat cracked at one point when I tried to hit an inside pitch, and instead of hitting the ball on the sweet spot farther up, I hit if off a vulnerable spot near the handle. Not wanting to discard my favorite bat, I did what many ballplayers did back then. I drilled a hole in the bat and inserted a small screw to reattach the fragmented piece, so my weapon of choice could serve me again. Naturally, the tape covered up the rough edge of the fracture, a badge of courage, if you will, for this wounded warrior.
Finally, you may be asking, “Why was this particular bat your favorite?” I actually liked the Robinson bat because of its thick handle. As a college upperclassman, I knew my dream of replacing Mickey Mantle in the Yankee outfield was gradually fading away. I was barely hitting .200, and I needed any edge I could get to try and eke out a few final hits in my baseball career before having to make the dreaded switch to softball. Thus, I hoped that by using a bat with a thicker handle, I might actually be able to push a soft liner past the reach of the opposing infielders for what we used to call a “Texas Leaguer” or a “bloop single.” Quite honestly, though, I don’t think I ever got that extra hit, but when I see that bat today hiding in the corner of my garage, I am reminded of two stories from half a century ago.
The first story, believe it or not, has to do with sign stealing. Today, of course, both the Houston Astros and the Boston Red Sox are in trouble for their more sophisticated attempts to gain an edge, but our coach was trying to secure a simple, but similar, advantage back then as well. About halfway through our game at Utica College, he called the team together to tell us that he was able to see the opposing catcher’s signs from the coaching box near third base. “If I whistle,” he said, “that means a fastball is coming rather than a curve ball.”
Coach assumed, of course, that we would be able to use that information to improve our chances of getting base hits. Unfortunately, his plan did not work. Personally, I found myself thinking too much while also trying to hit: “Okay, Coach just whistled; does that mean fastball or curve?” By the time I and my confused teammates figured it all out, it was too late. The game was over, we had lost, and their pitcher had a complete-game no hitter. You read that right. For the entire second half of the game, our coach knew every single pitch that was coming, yet we couldn’t get one solitary hit. Is it any wonder neither I nor any of my teammates made it to the Major Leagues?
And speaking of no-hitters, I have one additional story connected to that bat and to those majestic few years when I was fortunate enough to compete as a college athlete.
During the fall season of my senior year, we played a Saturday doubleheader against the University of Massachusetts. At that time, they had one of the best pitchers in the country — Mike Flanagan, a lefty flamethrower who would actually make it to the Majors and enjoy a long and illustrious career with the Baltimore Orioles and Toronto Blue Jays . On this day in 1972, Flanagan was magnificent.
Normally, a college baseball game includes nine innings, but when teams try to squeeze in two games in one afternoon, each game is shortened to seven innings. So during the first game on that dark and dreary afternoon, Flanagan shone like the bright star he was destined to become. He also threw a no-hitter against us, and he struck out 14. We were completely overwhelmed that day and definitely impressed by Flanagan’s brilliance. Ironically, though, ten years later, our perspective of his performance that day had deteriorated. When my former teammates and I reunited and shared a meal together, we all reveled in the fact that we had played against such an excellent pitcher, but not one of us would admit that we had struck out against him. “He didn’t strike me out even once,” I heard everyone say, myself included. How is it possible that Flanagan struck out two batters every inning, yet not one of us could remember actually going down on strikes? Is that fantasy baseball or early-onset Alzheimer’s?
Looking back at that innocent and optimistic time of my life, I remember so fondly the teammates with whom I shared those magical days. No, we didn’t win many games, but we sure had fun trying — and we’ve had almost as much fun over the years retelling those old stories.
So to help us through this temporary baseball void, rather than singing “Happy Birthday” twice as we wash our hands to avoid the virus, I suggest we sing, instead, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” This is a much better song to carry with us throughout the day, and, hopefully, it will remind you of your own favorite memories, as either a player or a fan of America’s pastime.
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(Below is a reposting of an old baseball article, one that might appeal to parents who are confined at home with rambunctious youngsters who can’t play outside with their friends because of the virus and the quarantine.)