Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Our pastime

Considering that baseball is my favorite sport, and that I played it for 20 years, it's interesting that I haven't written much about it. Time to remedy that.

Baseball is called "America's Pastime", although football and basketball are much more popular these days, and it's easy to see why. We continue to grow evermore fast-paced here in America, and baseball. Is. Just. Too. Darn. Sloooow. Football provides the violence and testosterone that we crave and basketball shows off some of the most incredible athletes in the world with a 24-second shot clock that guarantees plenty of scoring. Baseball just doesn't work that way.

I'll admit that I'd rather watch a good football game, or a college basketball game, over a professional baseball game. At least on TV. In person, baseball is right up there, and the slowness of the game, which makes it often unbearable on TV, is the very reason it's so great in person.

You have time to talk with people. You have time to think about the game situations, and to see how the players are reacting. There's time for dozens, if not hundreds, of little moments of mixups, stellar plays, decisions and momentum shifts that eventually add up to a win or loss. Then they do it again, 161 more times before the playoffs start.

Of course, I'm also biased because there's nowhere in the world I feel more at home than on the baseball field. When I'm standing on freshly cut grass in my uniform, with my glove or bat, and my hat, things just feel... right.

To honor the kickoff of the 2007 MLB season, here are my lists of top things I've witnessed in person at professional baseball games. I've only been to about 30 games, in three different cities (St. Louis, Kansas City, Houston), so this isn't a list of the all-time-best-ever-in-the-universe awards. Just the best I've seen from the stands.

Best Athlete -- Bo Jackson
Runner-up -- none

Simply incredible. Bo knows athleticism. In any game he played, he was the strongest man on the field, with the best arm and the most hitting power, while also being the fastest player on the field. How may people can say that? All this while he was playing the most body-damaging position in football for the Oakland Raiders in the "offseason".

He could hit balls 500 ft from the plate. Or he could stand at the plate and throw a ball over the fence. Yes, he really has done that. I also remember a time when he was on first base, and the pitcher made a quick move to first. No problem, Bo just sprinted to second before anybody could even get to the bag. I guess that's a stolen base, even though there was never a pitch.

One game in '89, the Royals held a 1-run lead in the ninth inning, and Jeff Montgomery was trying to get the save. The batter roped a line drive down the left-field line, and Montgomery said, "I put my head down and knew there was only one player in the world who could catch that. Then I remembered that player was my left-fielder. I looked up and Bo got it, and we won the game."

Bo also said that a few times every year, he would be at the plate and everything would slow down. When the pitch came, he could see the ball's stitches clearly, and could even read the lettering. I've had the same experience, and Bo's the only other guy I've heard talk about it. To be fair, though, I think he hit his super-slow-mo ball a little bit farther than I did.

Longest Home Run: Mark McGwire (circa 1992)
Runners-up: Albert Pujols and Shawn Green

Big Mac hit one over the foul pole at Kaufmann Stadium in Kansas City. Umpires had to deliberate for a minute to decide whether or not it was a fair ball. They counted it fair. Can't blame 'em.

Pujols and Green both hit monster shots at Minute Maid Park in Houston. Pujols hit it over the train tracks in left, while Green hit the top of the facade in deep left-center. That was impressive because it was easily over 480 feet, and it was to his opposite field.

Best Pitching Performance (Starter): Bret Saberhagen (1991)
Runners-up: Roy Oswalt and Roger Clemens

I've also seen Nolan Ryan pitch, but never on his best days. Saberhagen threw a complete game shutout in '91 that was amazing. He had four different pitches (fastball, curveball, slider, changeup) all working perfectly, and his fastball was well into the high 90s, although the stadium didn't have a scoreboard radar gun back then. He looked like he could've pitched 14 innings that day without breaking a sweat, and I'd bet if you asked him, he still remembers that game pretty vividly. Getting a chance to see an elite athlete really in the zone (even for him) is one of the reasons I go to games.

Roy and Roger aren't bad, either. But I haven't seen them as dominating as Saberhagen was in those nine innings sixteen years ago.

Best Pitching Performance (Reliever): Brad Lidge (2004)
Runner-up: Billy Wagner

I got to see both Lidge and Wagner plenty of times, and they had a lot in common. Both threw 100mph with the fastball, and both had a good slider to go with it. But Lidge's was nastier, far nastier.

And Brad Lidge in 2004 was one of the best seasons for any pitcher, ever. He had 157 strikeouts in 97 innings. Did you catch that? 157 Ks in 97 innings. He was absolutely unhittable for weeks at a time. Jeff Bagwell (former 1B for the Astros) has talked about that summer and noted that if Lidge ever walked a batter (that's pretty much the only way they reached base), they would trot to first base, look at Bagwell with stars in their eyes, and simply say, "Oh. My. God."

Makes me sad to see how terribly Lidge has performed that past couple of years. Oh well, at least he burned bright for a little while, and that slider was a thing of beauty. 90mph and dropped two and a half feet, down and to the left. Good luck.

Most Obviously Juiced Player: Jose Canseco
Runners-up: Ken Caminiti, Jeff Bagwell, Sammy Sosa and Ron Gant

I've seen many amazing natural athletes in my life, yet I've also played enough sports to be able to recognize when things go beyond natural. Canseco wasn't even close, and the runners-up were pretty obvious too. Here are my two neon signs for illegal performance-enhancing substances:

  1. Major body changes (20+ pounds of muscle) in a single offseason, especially for older players (cough..Bret Boone in 2001 at 32 years of age... cough...oh yeah, it was his contract year... cough).
  2. Maintaining peak condition, speed and power after 100 games in 115 days.

So that's it. What's the best you've seen?


Anonymous said...

I always LOVED watching you & your BROTHER play BB, because you both were so good, we knew we'd see SOMETHING 'new' & GREAT every time/day out there!!! Aren't you one, BLESSED Fan, to have personally SEEN all these GREAT performances--as, we were to have watched YOU PLAY!!! LOVE YOU! Mom

Bob Devlin said...

I'm a Met's fan so:

Mets v. Dodgers - Memorial Day 1962
My first Mets games (it was the usual Memorial Day Doubleheader). They lost the first game 13-6 and were losing the second game. Maury Wills was on second, Junior Gilliam on first when Willie Davis hits a scorcher over short. Elio Chacon makes a leaping catch, throws to Felix Mantilla at second who fires to Gill Hodges at first. Triple play. The only Met highlight of that day. I was 8 years old and I can still see that play vividly in my mind today.

Thanks for bringing up some memories of my favorite sport/pastime.

Anonymous said...

I grew up in Michigan. We went to usually one game per summer at old Tiger Stadium. The old stadiums were dark and dingy, but when you walked out of the tunnell, that green, green grass was a thing of beauty.

I also had the opportunity to go to a game at Yankee Stadium a couple years ago. Same type of thing. I talked my wife into going to take a tour the day before the game. They let us walk on the warning track and sit in the dugout!! Blew me away. My wife enjoyed it too, which made it all the much better. My eyes well-up just thinking about it.

Thanks Red...you rock! Enjoy the blog.

Ted (Blackjack)