‘A BEAUTIFUL WORK OF PEACE’ — MLB HAS LOST ITS ALLURE, THOUGH IN THE MIND’S EYE, THE GAME CAN NEVER DIE
By DAN VALENTI
Planet Valenti News and Commentary
(FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE, THURSDAY, MARCH 29, 2012) — Someone told us they opened the Major League baseball season in Japan the other night. It came as news. We don’t follow MLB any more.
That admission surprises many people, even to this day. There are still a segment of readers who associated me with baseball. They think we follow every at bat. They are wrong. We have washed MLB off our our hands.
‘Baseball Benn Berry, Berry Good to Me’
The business that used to be a game has long passed me by. I find it impossible to get excited about a team of unconditioned “athletes” who are paid and average of $3.5 million for six months work — and who generally bitch about it. Hockey and NFL? Can’t get enough.
Of course, to cop the words of Saturday Night Live‘s Chico Esuela, “Baseball been berry berry good to me.” First, it was good physically, mentally, and emotionally. THE PLANET spent most of a well-spent youth playing some version of baseball. In spring and summer, we played pick-up ball in our back yard and at Deming Park. When there weren’t enough guys for a game, three could play running the bases. Two could play roly-poly or Home Run Derby with Wiffle Ball. And if it was just me, myself, and I, we got out a rubber ball and retreated to the back porch steps, where for hours we would throw and catch, throw and catch. That’s how we got good with the glove, which was always the best part of my game.
Baseball later became of much practical good when, for a glorious decade in the 1980s, we earned a living as a baseball writer. We wrote a series of books that did well in the marketplace, and we supplemented that with newspaper, magazine, and broadcasting work. We still draw royalty checks from a couple of our books. What a gas it is for get paid for doing nothing. We got to meet many of the game’s legends. For two decades, we were business partners with Ken Coleman, Voice of the Red Sox, on various publishing and broadcast ventures. We got to see MLB from the inside, warts and all, a life that many fans used to dream about. To get to be a baseball bum and be paid for it was a career twist we never anticipated but gladly accepted with all the joy of a kid at Christmas.
We played organized ball — Little League and Babe Ruth League — and found them OK, but even with uniforms and all, the organized version, run by adults, couldn’t match the pick-up games, where kids were in control. The last thing we wanted hanging around was a pack of adults. Today, of course, it’s the opposite. Kids have lost their ability for spontaneous fun, and can only “play” under the horrific, pseudo, faux-MLB conditions that ones sees, for example, in Little League ball.
All that for a Handful of At Bats per Week
A venture into Deming Park these days reveals a park scarred by over-production and under-use. The South Little League, which has to be taught that it doesn’t own Deming Park, has taken the spontaneity and fun out of baseball. There’s a press box, a concession stands, an official warning track, painted foul poles, a sprinkler system, a parking lot … cease and anon, for it cuts too much to the quick! All that to get a kid a handful of at bats for about five weeks of the year. In pick-up ball, you’d get 50 at bats a day!
Back in the day, before kids lost their souls to video screens, parks like Deming were hives of activity. We can recall, for example, days when you couldn’t find an empty ball field at Deming. There were four official diamonds and two make shift versions, and on many summer days, all six were in use. You and your guys would have to wait until a field opened up or maybe you tried to get into an existing game.
You didn’t need a stinking permit from any commission. You showed up. You played ball. The South Little League didn’t own the Little League field. It was first come, first served for the most part.
MLB: An Exercise in Excess
Major League Baseball today, 37 years after free agency, has become an exercise in excess. Players bounce around from team to team, following the money. Agents aggravate the middle, playing player off of owners to the detriment of fans. Fans themselves do not understand the game they was they used to. Consequently, MLB presents a dumbed down, ruinously expensive version of the game, a slow, drawn out snore-fest artificially pumped up by settings: the new ballparks that resemble more amusement parks-cum-shopping mall than baseball fields.
Even the product on the field is watered down. After World War II, at the height, there were probably 8,000 minor league ball players in the 16 major league farm systems. They were competing for 400 big league jobs. Today, there are less than 2,000 minor leaguers competing for 700 jobs. As a result, what passes for big league ball today would be Triple A ball of the 1970s and prior. Today’s Triple A is what Double A ball used to be, and so on.
Kids are not playing ball, and those that do aren’t playing it well. There will always be exceptions, granted, but for the most part, these are the days when everyone makes the team, everyone gets a trophy, and everyone is told how good they are. There’s even a youth league in California that doesn’t keep score in games. Kids cannot strike out but they can walk. No one loses. The adults do this to prevent the irreparable damage that comes from being on the losing side, from striking out, or from not being good enough to make the team. Alarmingly, this is a growing trend: To make of youth Bubble Children, artificially protected (so we think) from life’s hurts.
Of course, what we’re seeing at work here is a microcosm of what’s wrong with Amerika today. We’ve lost our independence. We do not believe in manifest destiny. We have become, God help us, victims.
Today, we might pay attention if the Boston Red Sox get into the World Series, an annoying habit they have developed in the past decade, when they have swept to two world titles. Otherwise, we would as soon see the Houston Astros win on any given day. And with all that being written, let us say that there’s no a day that goes by that we don’t give thanks for the blessings given by baseball, that most pastoral of games. Though organized ball has tried its best to kill it, The Game will never die.
With that, we present a lovely guest piece from writer Paul Kocak, a life-long fan of the New York/San Francisco Giants, who a couple years ago finally got to see the Giants win it all.
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‘THROUGH A GLASS, DARKLY’
By PAUL KOCAK
Special to PLANET VALENTI Sports
Comparing our earthly existence to the next life, my namesake Saint Paul famously wrote, at least according to the King James Version, “For now we see through a glass, darkly.” Well, the so-called Knothole enabled me and the other chosen few there to see through a fence brightly: the celestial dazzle of Game 1 of the 2010 World Series. The Knothole is simply a free viewing area behind right field of AT&T Park in San Francisco. Even the name evokes sentimental, Norman Rockwell-ish scenes of kids peering through a hole in a wooden fence to catch a free glimpse of baseball.
The Giants, at least theoretically, let in 100 to 125 people who stay for three innings and get shuffled out. So as I waited in line, I became part of a small community; you get to know a few folks. Some stayed; some bailed. Before the game, we saw the antics on McCovey Cove and then got soundly jolted by the roar of jets zooming by closely overhead as a part of a pregame display. Someone tossed a football from the Cove to us — great arm, “sign ‘em up for the Niners!” — and and it.
went back and forth, with dramatically good tosses, until it landed a second time in one of the upper pews of the festive baseball cathedral, and remained there. We heard bits and pieces of John Legend singing the National Anthem. In the early innings, I heard Tony Bennett — really? in person? yes! — singing “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” a song that left me quietly sobbing with joy last year after our first game at AT&T. I was on the verge this time, but held it off. In the line, I met Dennis and Linda from Modesto in back of me, and we learned about some similarities in career paths and our shared Giants passion. (They later skipped off to near the Willie McCovey statue, but it was a treat to get a call from them when we Won It All.) Others, who were nameless, shared reports from transistor radios, supplementing the information we gleaned from crowd silence or roars. It was like the 1950s with radios sneaked into school, hidden in desks. A gray-haired guy perhaps a few years younger than myself reported on the Giants falling behind in the early going, 2-0; scared looks crossed our faces.
The line shuffled along, very slowly, almost imperceptibly at times, or not at all. I left the line briefly at one point — my place held for me by my new friends– to walk toward the front just to see if anyone was selling tickets. Nope. I traded calls and texts not only back East but with San Francisco-area contacts and friends. Others in the line scouted ahead more toward the center field section, along our waterfront promenade, only to report ominously that people were being allowed in to the Knothole from that end. Confusing. Chaotic. A bit dispiriting, which is why some bailed. Such as the stolid guy in front of me, such as Dennis and Linda, and the relative of the fellow directly in back of me (they got separated, one without a phone).
Our hope perked up when the Giants tied it at 2, and soon we had moved up close enough to catch action on TVs we could watch through windows that appeared to be in luxury boxes within the stadium. But as we moved toward the middle innings, there we were still in line, not really knowing for sure if we would ever get a free glimpse, feeling too much like herded livestock — but eager and relatively happy livestock. I read later in USA Today that the Giants gave out wristbands for those awaiting free viewing. No such thing for Game 1. And as Freddy Sanchez, Aubrey Huff, and Cody Ross propelled us into a solid lead, exuberance rebounded. If the scheme of Knothole viewing were to hold true for us, we would view in the under-the-stands cubbyhole for the last three innings. But it really began to look iffy. I figured: hang in here; stay with it. And when Uribe’s ball sailed out of our view, accompanied by raucous cheers and water cannon, we knew he’d hit a homer and we high-fived anyone we could reach, maybe twice.
Then we found ourselves in a railed in area, within a gated barricade. Good sign. Maybe there is some order to this. Then the guards were checking bags and seemingly ousting some people. One guy who was clearly on the promenade (but not in line) was now in the Knothole! Huh? It appeared that he had cut in. So, our mini-community was encouraged when they started shuffling out the previous Knothole gang of 100 or 125. I confess I got a little nervous. I walked up to the security gatekeeper who was trying to keep order. “Hey, look, I came here all the way from Syracuse, New York, and…” “Don’t worry; y’all will get in. Stop pushing, people. Hey!” It was a little frantic, not riotous but tense. But by the top of the 8th inning (alas, we did not even get in by the “allotted” 7th inning), our batch was filing in. “Hey, let those kids in first. Syracuse! Hey, you, Syracuse, come here.” In. I texted my daughter. “In the Knothole.”
I’d have to say the wait was worth it. You’re in a cavern looking through a chain-link fence, so you’re drenched in game light. As far as I can tell, you are at playing-field level. Exactly. You cannot say that about the most expensive seat in the house. You are directly in back of the right fielder and gain an unparalleled glimpse of the spatial challenges any outfielder must face. You get a tremendous sense of that difficulty. Nevertheless, as rough as it was, I had to laugh when someone in our group yelled to Vladimir Guerrero, “You’ll always be a Montreal Expo!” Ouch. And he proceeded to make two errors. Vlad looked tired and beat. The Rangers looked tired and beat. But although we rejoiced in some more scoring we also withstood some customary “Torture” in the 9th, as the Giants’ season has been termed.
And when victory was finally, inexplicably, and outrageously ours, our little family down there hugged and fist-bumped and high-fived (more than once, thanks) and howled and screamed and cried gloriously: the kid formerly on his father’s shoulders right at the fence (from Reno?) (watched by a “stranger”); the Asian woman my age; the mother and daughter (or were they friends?) who teared up when the heard my little story; the young lady who is an architect, originally from Canada, I recall, who fed me game updates from her ear buds, thank you; the graying guy my age with the baseball cap; the young Latinos and Latinas; the young and old; the men and women and boys and girls; the single and married; the black and white; the Orange and Black.
We won Game 1! We beat Cliff Lee! We can win the World Series.
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We thank Paul for that marvelous piece. We dedicate it to former Giants farmhand, Charley Garivaltis.
THE PLANET hopes you enjoyed a day off from all the mystery and madness that is politics and grime. Hard Knox is on vacation.
BEHOLD, WE SEE ASCENDING DIAMONDS AT OUR SIDE PROJECTING LONG SHADOWS ON THE INFIELD’S LEFT SIDE. BEHOLD, WILLIAMS’ TOWERING BATS INCREASE, AND BASEBALLS RISE, A BEATIFUL WORK OF PEACE.
“OPEN THE WINDOW, AUNT MILLIE”
LOVE TO ALL.