It dawned on me a few days ago that we're already in January. OK, I knew that as soon as I heard the fireworks early on the first. But what I grasped at last is that if this is January, Major League baseball players report to spring training camps NEXT MONTH. The thought cheered me.
This is the time of year when I weary of all sports that aren't baseball. By January I've usually developed minor nervous tics that true fans will recognize as symptoms of Baseball Withdrawal Syndrome (BWS in the medical literature).
Sure I can get winter sports fixes with the NFL, which amuses me for short periods. (The Super Bowl this year will be in Tampa, where I live. But this will only mean more traffic and noise and general botheration, not the least of which will be the local Babbitts and boosters prattling on endlessly on how important this event is to the Tampa Bay area and how it proves how comprehensively wonderful the local life is. It is indeed pretty good around here. But not because of a football game. I'll be glad when it's over and gone.)
Watching Florida beat Oklahoma in the BCS (Big College Show) championship game was fun. Young Tebow is a force of nature. And I have enough sports channels in my cable package to pick up the occasional good boxing match. (There was a dandy the other night when a hard-hitting Polish guy named Adamek took the cruiserweight championship away from a tall American who is so long-armed he looks a bit like a praying mantis.) But it's the return of the Grand Old Game that I crave.
So imagine my delight when I discovered this weekend that by going to MLB.com and then to Best Games, I can watch classic baseball games and a selection of games from '08 on my computer screen for free. Saturday's offering was the 7th game of the 1965 World Series when Sandy Koufax three-hit the Twins to take the title.
Not only did I get to see a dominating performance by one of the game's greatest pitchers, but got to see again household names of the baseball world of a half century ago: Harmon Killebrew, Tony Oliva, Maury Wills, Jim Gilliam, John Roseboro, et al. To top off this embarrassment of baseball riches, the game was called by the best baseball announcer to draw breath, Vin Scully.
The gentlemanly Scully, 81 and ready to call the 2009 Dodgers season, has been the Dodgers' main announcer since before the team left Brooklyn for L.A. With his intelligence, humility, dexterity with the language, and cliché-free delivery he can turn a baseball game into poetry. His broadcast booth is a hype-free and hyperbole-free zone.
Who'da thunk a guy with a Bronx accent could be so pleasing to listen to? For millions, the sound of Vin Scully and a baseball crowd is the sound of the American summer night. In fact, for decades the only cultural advantage to living in Los Angeles has been Vin Scully on the air. He's probably the only baseball announcer who could have his own highlight reel.
I have some nominations for that reel. The night in September of 1965 when Sandy Koufax took his fourth no-hitter and only perfect game into the ninth in Dodger Stadium, Scully started the call of that historic inning by saying, "29,000 souls in Dodger Stadium tonight, and a million butterflies."
When the Phillies had a classy double-play combination of Bobby Wine at shortstop and Cookie Rojas at second, Scully spoke of "the plays of Wine and Rojas." Fans whose baseball memory stretches back to the sixties recall that Bob Gibson was not only a dominating pitcher but one of the fastest workers around. When he got the ball back from the catcher he was ready to throw again. No screwing around. Scully said, "Gibson pitches like he's double-parked." When Andre Dawson had a minor injury, Scully said, using that peculiar baseball expression, Dawson was "day to day." Scully took a beat and added, "Aren't we all?" Just so.
But back to the action on the field. Watching that 43 year-old game I was struck, as almost any baseball savvy person over 50 would be, by some dramatic differences between that time and the modern game. First, the umpires were in those old, black undertakers' suits with white shirts and ties that they used to wear. The home plate umpire's huge outside chest protector looked like a section of couch. It appears substantial enough to stop a shoulder-fired missile (or a Sandy Koufax fastball, whichever hits harder).
The players were all wearing high stirrup socks at a uniform height (take notice, Manny). Sartorial standards were very different too. No excess hair, facial or otherwise, and no jewelry. This is in sharp-contrast to the postmodern player, who is often hairier than a bearded collie and wearing more jewelry than Mr. T.
Lou Johnson of the Dodgers was the only player to go yard that day. He didn't stand and admire his drive when he hit it or point to the sky. He just got around the bases quickly, as was the practice then.
Another pleasant aspect of the old games is that between innings they just had organ music rather than the blasting rock that accompanies games in contemporary ball yards. No exploding scoreboards or constant, loud commercial promotions. No "Day-O" or choruses of "YMCA" in between innings. The entire entertainment package was the baseball game, which was clearly enough for the 50,000 fans on hand.
Speaking of whom, the contrast was almost as big in the stands. The fans, an orderly bunch in 1965 Minneapolis, were not dressed, as is the current fan, as though he were heading straight from the game to a knife fight or to muck out a stable. There was even a scattering of men in coats and ties (it was a chilly mid-October afternoon).
When Koufax got the last out, the Dodgers celebrated their championship, but without all 25 of them rolling on the turf in a scrum like a bunch of junior high school boys just let out of school for the summer. The Dodger players were clearly thrilled they had reached the pinnacle of their sport and showed it. But no psychotic breaks. No manic behavior. They got off the field quickly and into the visitor's locker room, not showing up the local team and crowd.
There was no spraying champagne in the post-game winners' locker room, where Scully asked fairly obvious but intelligent questions of the players and of Dodger manager Walter Alston. These worthies managed to answer Scully's questions in complete sentences without the aid of "you know," or "like," or the procession of clichés no athlete interview is compete without today. The word "awesome" was not heard once. No players stalked the guy talking to Scully with a shaving cream pie. The sports writers even wore coats and ties.
So for me Saturday was an afternoon of great baseball and some sobering cultural markers. I'll doubtless go to the Trop in St. Petersburg a few times this summer to watch and pull for the Rays. But it saddens me a bit that the games will sound a bit like rock concerts (ear plugs are now essential ball-park gear) and cost about the same to attend. Saturday's nostalgic walk reminded me that within the living memory of millions of Americans is a time when 50,000 grownups could enjoy a baseball game in a civilized setting.
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