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The Classic Bob Gibson Followthrough

This is an edited version of a blog entry from way back in 2009:

It’s that time of the year.

Catchers and pitchers are reporting to spring training. Baseball is in the air. Is there any better time of the year?

Baseball has always held a special place for me. Oh, I was no more than an average player– decent bat, lousy arm and a so-so glove– but there was pure magic in seeing the heroes of my youth and hearing the stories of the early legends of the game.

I remember my grandmother telling me of going with my grandfather to New York City on their honeymoon in 1921 and seeing Babe Ruth play with the Yankees. Ruth hit a double and a triple as she recalled.

I remember sitting with my grandfather, the mythological Shank, so called for the holds he would apply to his opponent’s legs during his time as a professional wrestler, and watching the World Series in the afternoons of 1968. I had my tonsils out and was still recuperating and we watched the St. Louis Cardinals play the Detroit Tigers, who won the series. It was great watching with my grandfather plus I was introduced a player who became one of the heroes of my youth, Bob Gibson, the Cardinal’s pitching ace.

Gibby was it for me. The toughest guy out there, one whose competitive fire was, and is, legendary. So dominating as a pitcher that baseball changed the mound height because they felt the hitters needed help since he was practically unhittable. I read his early autobiography, From Ghetto to Glory, numerous times as a kid and that made him an even bigger hero to me. He was eloquent and college-educated, a rarity for ballplayers of that era, and his story was compelling, going from abject poverty onto college then a stint with the Harlem Globetrotters then on to baseball stardom.

He remains a hero.

Baseball was always played at our house. My dad was a pretty fair pitcher who had promise as a youth. In subsequent years, I have uncovered numerous news stories in old newspapers about his exploits on the mound and in the field. But later, as a dad, he would occasionally play catch with me and my friends. Eventually, he would break out his knuckleball, a pitch he was known for in his younger days. It was practically uncatchable, having a spectacular drop that would appear to be entering your glove only to end up hitting you in the stomach. Or lower. I was never able to master the pitch but still appreciate the awkward grace and dance of a well thrown knuckler.

Other times, I would pitch to him and he would hit flies to my brother in the outfield. Periodically, he would hit hard liners back at me. They would bang off me or make me dive out of the way and he would cackle. I would then try to drill him with the next pitch, which would make him laugh even more because he had gotten my goat.

I would calm myself and wait until he would pitch to me, waiting for the perfect pitch when I could send a hard line drive back at him, making him duck or dive. At such times, after having to jump out of the way or  defend himself with his glove, he would yell out a Hey! and give me a harsh look. Then he would usually laugh because he knew that I was just paying him back for his earlier actions. Payback was just part of the game.

Even my work has been somewhat affected by my experiences with the game. I remember the first time coming out of tunnel during a night game at Shea Stadium in the late 1960’s and seeing the field spread out before me. I was stunned by the colors that were so rich and lush under the warmth of the lights. It was a feeling that I think I wanted to replicate in some manner which ultimately led me to art.

Over the years baseball has become my calendar for the passing of the year and is a comforting friend on the days when the world seems ready to implode. I am still captive to the numbers and legends of baseball, one of those romantics who see poetry in a game based in tradition.

To that end, here is a wonderful version of Take Me Out to the Ballgame from Harpo Marx, played on I Love Lucy. It is delicate and graceful.  It’s the essence of the memory of baseball for me…

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Game 7 of the World Series last night.

What was there not to like?

For me, the shocking victory by the underdog Washington Nationals over the Houston Astros seemed like the universe was setting things right in a karmic sense.

The Nationals, the oldest team in major league baseball with the youngest superstar in Juan Soto, made an improbable run through the later part of the regular season and into the playoffs, becoming the first team to win all of their World Series victories on their opponent’s home field. That in itself goes against all the odds.

Just like the odds in May from the bookmakers in Las Vegas that had the Nationals chances of winning the series as 1.5%.

Maybe it was a gift from karma for them getting rid of Bryce Harper?

Or maybe it was a nod from karma for the Nationals crowd loudly booing the president* both at his appearance in game 5 and at a viewing party at Nationals Park in the rain last night?

I believe that was just a case of the crowd adhering to the old baseball adage that says: I calls ’em like I sees ’em.

And they got that call right.

Or maybe the karma came in the fact that the pitcher who got the final three outs was the Nationals’ Daniel Hudson and not Robert Osuna, the controversial Astros closer.

Hudson missed an earlier playoff game so that he could be with his wife as she gave birth and Osuna was arrested last year for domestic violence for beating the mother of his child. He was passed over by a number of teams but the Astros picked him up.

But the karma payback might have come in response to the Astros’ earlier defense of one of their executives, Brandon Taubman, who, in the clubhouse after the Astros won the American League pennant, taunted some female reporters, one who had written about domestic violence in sports, with an expletive filled rant that invoked Osuna’s name. The Astros’ management at first defended Taubman and said that it was totally misrepresented in the public accounts. But the Astros were later forced, after several witnesses to the event came forward, that they had been wrong and fired Taubman.

That might have been too late for the Astros– karma was already in motion.

My faith in humanity might not be fully restored yet but my faith in baseball and karma certainly has returned. It makes me believe that karma is now ready to move on from baseball and clear up some other pressing matters.

And it’s coming with a heavy hammer…

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Casey at the Bat- Sean Kane

The feeling is in the air again and brings back sensory memories. Green grass smell. Bright sun light and brown earth. The vocal patter of the players. The plunk of a ball entering a mitt. The sound of bat on ball, sometimes a dull thunk and sometimes a resounding crack that makes you turn your head to see the flight of the ball.

And the path of that hard hit ball in the air is sometimes a majestic arc that immediately ignites a sense of wonder and a brief glimpse of some innate understanding that evades us at all other times.

Aaah, baseball has returned.

First spring training games start today and to be honest, I am a little more giddy than normal this year. It just feels like we need the game to be bigger and even more transcendent in these times. It needs to be a balm, a healing agent for what ails us. As a longtime symbolic shadow of this country, the game has served that purpose in the past and I have hopes it can do so again.

So, play ball. Please.

I am showing some of the work of Sean Kane, an artist who works painting baseball gloves, especially those beautiful vintage gloves that seem like little more than fat work gloves. If you’ve ever tried to play with one of those, you have greater appreciation for the players of earlier days and what they could do with those gloves.

Anyway, I saw his work and was immediately smitten. Just gorgeous stuff,especially for those of us with a soft spot for the history of the game. One of my favorites is the one from the Cuban player Martin Dihigo who played his career in the Negro Leagues and other leagues in Latin America.

And that Jackie Robinson glove, inside and out, and the Casey at the Bat triptych at the top are both masterpieces! Grand slams!

You can see much more of his work at his site,  Sean Kane Baseball Art, by clicking here.

Play ball!

Sean Kane- Martin Dihigo Glove

Sean Kane- Jackie Robinson Glove Outside View

Sean Kane- Jackie Robinson Glove Inside View

Sean Kane- “Say Hey” Willie Mays Glove

Sean Kane- Babe Ruth Glove

Sean Kane- Shoeless Joe Jackson Glove

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Yesterday one of my all-time favorite baseball players, Mariano Rivera, was elected to the the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. He was the first player in the history of a hall of fame filled with legendary names to be elected unanimously. Every one of the voters recognized his ability and respected all that he contributed to the game. His stoic, respectful dominance is the ideal for lovers of the game. I know I sure miss seeing his number 42 running out of the outfield towards the mound. Here’s a post about Mo from back in 2011.

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I am a big fan of baseball. I classify myself as a Yankees fan currently but, though I revel in the rich history of the organization with names like Babe Ruth,Lou Gehrig, Joe Dimaggio, Yogi Berra, Mickey Mantle and on and on, it is the group of players that started their current run of success that made me fans of this team. Bernie Williams, Jose Posada, Andy Pettitte and, of course, Derek Jeter were constants over the last 15 years. All played significant roles in the restoring the Yankees to the top of the baseball heap.

But any fan who cares a lick about baseball knows that much of their success is due to one player, a rail thin man from Panama with the name Mariano Rivera, known to fans simply as Mo. Today he stands as the all-time leader in saves, meaning he is the pitcher who comes in at the ends of games when the outcome is in the balance and shuts down the threat from the other team. He is the closer, the most demanding position  in the game so far as absolute consistency is concerned. He either preserves the win or loses the game. No excuses accepted.

No one has been as consistent in protecting the lead for wins as Mo for the past 15 years, a remarkable time for a position where the strain and stress usually drains most closers after 7 or 8 years. Yankee fans have long felt the welcome comfort that comes with seeing number 42 come jogging through the outfield from the bullpen to enter the game. Even that number 42 is special.  Mariano will be the last player to wear the number since he is the last active player who was wearing number 42 at the time when Major League Baseball retired the number to honor Jackie Robinson.

Greener Pastures: 42

It’s hard to explain to non-baseball fans what Mo has meant to the Yankees and to baseball in general. He has carried himself for these years with great modesty and dignity, never showing up an opponent. On the mound, he has the appearance of the old gunfighter in the movie westerns of years gone by– wary but calm and collected, knowing that he must control his emotions to do what he must do. When the game is over, there are no histrionics, no yelling or posing or excessive fistpumps. He expects his success and usually flashes a small and sometimes sheepish grin as his teammates congratulate him.

It’s an attitude that has won him great respect around the game. Yesterday, when he broke the record, the Minnesota Twins, who came up short against Mo in this game, stayed after the game and gathered on the dugout steps to join the Yankee faithful in applauding the embarrassed star as he stood alone on the field. Even diehard Red Sox fans, who boo Jeter like he killed their mother, often give Mo a hearty cheer when he is announced at post-season or All Star games. [Note: When Mo retired in 2013, Red Sox fans gave him a long and loud standing ovation on his last appearance at Fenway]

He is a man of respect, both giving and receiving, a quality that hopefully will rub off on younger players.

Mo’s 41 years old and when he takes off his cap his scalp is bald now. He shows his age a bit but still performs at the highest level. As a fan I know there will not be many more times when number 42 calms the anxious Yankee fans as he jogs across the outfield toward the mound. I relish every appearance now, knowing that I am watching a legend, a player who will be talked about in the same breath with Ruth and Gehrig.

Deservedly so.

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Three Base Hit- James Daugherty 1917

+++++++++++++

Baseball, it is said, is only a game. True. And the Grand Canyon is only a hole in Arizona. Not all holes, or games, are created equal.

George Will

+++++++++++++

Opening day yesterday and baseball is off and running. This whole damn place might seem ready to go up in flames any minute now but for a few hours every day or so, all seems right in the world. Hey, baseball even gives me a place to find common ground with George Will.

For a Yankees fan, yesterday’s opening day was all that could they could hope for as Giancarlo Stanton, one half of their Twin Towers along with Aaron Judge, quickly put to rest any fears that he would wither under the pressure of playing for the Yanks. In the first inning, on the second pitch he saw, he crushed a home run to right center. Then he bookended the day with an even longer blast to center in the ninth as the Yanks cruised to the win.

And I had a great day in the studio, to boot.

And all was right in the world for a few hours.

Here’s a song I played here a couple of years back, one of my favorite baseball songs. It’s Baseball Boogie from Mabel Scott. Batter up!

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Part of the charm of baseball for me are its mythic elements, the stories that captured my imagination as a kid.  For instance, Babe Ruth allegedly pointing to the centerfield fence to call his home run. Or Satchel Paige supposedly throwing strikes using a single gum wrapper laid on home plate as the strike zone.  Willie Mays’ fabled but very real over the shoulder catch. And Jackie Robinson stealing home in the World Series. Too many more to mention here.

This year has brought a player who may enter into that pantheon of mythic baseball lore.  Rookie Aaron Judge of the Yankees combines a physique that seems right out of tall tales with Paul Bunyan size and strength. He’s 6′ 8″ tall and weighs in the 275 pound range, the largest player by sheer body mass to ever play the game. But it is not a lumbering, heavy mass.  He is athletic and quick with a powerful and accurate throwing arm.

But it is his potent bat that has made him the big news of NY and the rest of the major leagues. He leads the American League in home runs, runs batted in, runs, batting average and walks.

All are amazing stats but it is the way in which he strikes his homers that has thrilled the crowds and made his every at bat must see viewing. His pregame batting practices are already legendary with balls flying to the deepest parts of the park where they have scattered bartenders and shattered television screens. The excitement has people coming to the games wearing costume powdered wigs and he even has a section of the stands named in his honor– the Judge’s Chambers.

He hits the ball with incredible power and the crack of the bat is startlingly sharp, with a thunderclap to it unlike almost any other player. His home runs leave the park at ultra high velocity and go ridiculous distances. Yesterday, he hit a ball at Yankee Stadium close to 500 foot that had the other players as well as the announcers in sheer awe.  He is simply hitting balls to places where they have never been hit before, even in batting practice. As Paul O’Neill said, it’s like he’s a big man playing in a Little League field.

I have to say that he has ignited that excitement in the game that I had as a kid where every game, every at bat has the possibility of the amazing or the transcendent taking place. Something that would tie your experience of it to the great myths of the game.

Now, the realistic part of me, that awful adult part, knows that the odds are that someday soon this torrid pace may slow and he will return to the ranks of the merely good ball players. Baseball is a humbling game for players and fans alike. But for know, Aaron Judge is playing the game like he’s in a comic book, like he’s King Kong swinging Thor’s Hammer at the plate. And that makes this middle-aged boy very happy. It’s a great diversion away from these troubling times.

Whenever he comes to the plate, I always think of this song from the 60’s. It was a minor hit in 1968 from Motown’s Shorty Long, who died the following year in a boating accident. I was just a kid at the time, idolizing Cardinal pitcher Bob Gibson, himself a mythic character, but I remember this song well. Can’t go wrong here, Motown soul with the Funk Brothers laying down a great backing track. Courts in session, here come the Judge…

 

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Ah, sweet relief!

I need a break from the absurdity that is our government at the moment. I need something to hang my hat on that is based on the truth that is right in front of us. No alternate facts.

Baseball.

It’s Opening Day and a little sanity returns to the world. Remember that all of the craziness and angst of the past six months happened when there was no major league baseball being played. See what happens when you take away baseball?

It’s a simple and clear cut affair with nothing but the facts running the whole shebang . Three strikes and you’re out. The ball clears the fence and it’s a home run. The team with the most runs wins at the end of nine innings.  And since they instituted video reviews of tight plays the only time that opinion comes into play on the field is with the home plate umpire’s calls of balls and strikes.

And unlike certain politicians, it’s a game of humility and instant karma. Blowhards, big mouths and boasters get brought down on a daily basis. Remember that this a game where one of the greatest batters of all time, Ty Cobb, failed to get a hit at the plate about 65% of the time. Reggie Jackson might be Mr. October and in the Hall of Fame but he has more strikeouts than hits in his career.

Ultimately, you put up or you shut up in baseball.

And it’s back today and I feel my anxiety leveling off. My rhythms are righting.

Play ball!

I thought for this Sunday’s music I’d play a little song from Sister Wynona Carr, The Ball Game from 1952. Wynona Carr was a multiple threat, singing r & b, rock and roll, and gospel. She added the Sister to her name when she was in that gospel mode. She never achieved a real breakout in any of her genres and after contracting tuberculosis in the late 1950’s she sunk into obscurity. She died in 1976 in Cleveland at the age of 53.

A sad story but she left us with some good music including this song, which was included in the recent Jackie Robinson biopic, 42. Give a listen and watch a couple of innings. It’ll do you some good.

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