LOOKING BACK ON BASEBALL, AS THE COLD WINDS BLOW

And so baseball winter has begun, made even harsher by the tragic death of Roy Halladay. The hopeful breezes of spring, the lazy hazy crazy days of summer and the beautifully slanted light of fall have all departed from the diamond, leaving us to bundle up and shiver through the bleak wintry months of no baseball. In that sweet, far-off time when I was a kid, the Series was always over by the second week of October, in time for the players to do their fall hunting. Now, with so many wildcard and playoff games piled on, the Series stretches into November, as ridiculous a month as ever was for the summer game. In November, you don’t think baseball, you think winter.

There was hardly a “wow” ending. The highly-anticipated seventh game of the recent Series was drearier than opening a tin of sardines. To paraphrase noted St. Louis Cardinal fan T.S. “Tommy” Eliot, “This is the way the year ends. Not with a bang but a whimper.” After two dreadful stanzas by Yu “Non-Whirling” Darvish, the Astros were up 5-0. Yet we had to endure seven more innings of tedium in front of an increasingly morose  crowd, before the Dodgers officially surrendered, 5-1, and the Houston Astros, of all teams, were World Series champions. It was a forlorn anti-climax to a Series that had been such a wonderful reminder of the kind of drama and individual heroics only baseball can deliver. There were spells of off-the-wall craziness never before witnessed on a World Series diamond. So many records were shattered, it felt like Disco Demolition Night at Comiskey Park in 1979. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I1CP1751wJA)

The Series even started with a record. The thermometer for Game One at Chavez Ravine hit 103 degrees on the fuddy-duddy Fahrenheit scale, nine degrees higher than the previous heat standard (baseball has statistics on everything). Then Dodger leadoff hitter Chris Taylor homered on the very first pitch his team faced. Had that ever happened? Nope. Mind you, there have only been 113 previous World Series.

Game Two was so full of extraordinary happenings it could have been the Trump White House. But in a good way. All told there were eight home runs, including a seemingly impossible five in extra innings. Both were Series firsts, with the added fillip of the Dodgers, down to their last strike in the bottom of the 10th, tying the game on a rare single, struck by a guy who hit .a measly 215 during the year.

The next two games were close, well-played contests, setting the stage for what many have called a World Series game for the ages. When home runs stopped rocketing into the bleachers, when three-run leads on both sides stopped being erased with a swing of the bat, and the last beleaguered pitcher staggered off the mound, the score was 13-12. Someone did one of those momentum charts. It went up and down like a pogo stick. The game lasted five hours and 17 minutes. Something inside me wanted it to go on forever. And after all that slugging, the game ended in the 10th inning with the puniest of baseball rallies: a two-out hit batter, a walk and a single. These few lines simply can’t do justice to the abundance of thrills that took place. But for those who want to read a fulsome write-up of the game, here’s a wild account by my favourite baseball writer these days, Jonah Keri. https://www.cbssports.com/mlb/news/astros-dodgers-world-series-game-5-the-moments-that-made-us-lose-our-damn-mind/ Even the New Yorker’s Roger Angell, the best chronicler baseball has ever had, roused himself at the age of 97 to write about it. https://www.newyorker.com/news/sporting-scene/astros-dodgers-world-series-home-runs

When the last of the Dodgers fell, befitting the team’s first World Series in its 55-year history, the young Astros naturally went wild.  Shortstop Carlos Correa was so pumped, he proposed to his girlfriend right there on the field. Live, on TV. Another Series first!

For Vancouver baseball fans, however, this was old hat. We had our championship moment in the sun weeks ago. For the fourth time in seven years, the hometown Canadians hoisted the highly-esteemed Bob Freitas Trophy, emblematic of baseball supremacy in the Single A Northwest League. We made the Everett Aquasox suck, forced the Tri-City Dust Devils to eat dust, sent the Hillsboro Hops hopping, doused the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes, polished off the Eugene Emeralds, made too much noise for Boise, and forced the Spokane Indians to change their name to the Indigenous People. It may not have been the World Series, but the exuberance and abandon of the young Canadians bouncing up and down on the field and frolicking around their championship trophy matched anything we saw in Los Angeles, albeit minus an engagement ring.

Minor league baseball is so much fun. Yes, Bull Durham had lots of other stuff going for it, but the charm of baseball’s best movie came mostly from its spot-on depiction of baseball in the minors, including the community’s loyal fan base (in the case of Annie Savoy, a bit more than “loyal”…). The movie gets it right. The way Vancouver has fallen in love with venerable Nat Bailey Stadium and its Single A Canadians, even lower on the Blue Jays’ farm team ladder than the Lansing Lugnuts, reminds one that money, hype and saturation, endlessly-analytical coverage aren’t everything in sports. Sometimes there’s just the joy of the game, itself.

I can’t remember having a bad time at Nat Bailey. It’s a place for families and kids, lifelong baseball fans, couples on a date, “bros” who just want to suck back a brew or two in the sun and, well, just about everyone. The entire park is a no-lout zone. This past summer was particularly splendid. Not only did the Canadians qualify for the playoffs before sell-out crowds, they won it all. I took in two of the games, including the one that brought the C’s their league championship in glorious September.

Both were tight, 2-1 victories, but the mood in the stands was anything but tense. During Game One, half a dozen women sitting behind me were having a grand time, chatting away and watching the game, too. (“Can you imagine trying to hit 94 mph?….Their pitcher looks 12….”) When a dude photo-bombed their selfie, they killed themselves laughing. As for my lonely guy self, I was able to muse once again on that baseball imponderable: why are there coaching boxes if the coaches are never in them? I also noticed with delight that a coach for the visitors was a fellow named Turtle Thomas.

The game went into the eighth inning, still scoreless, when the C’s Logan Warmoth, who had only one homer all year and whose older brother is a morning TV news anchor in Florida, unexpectedly lined the ball into the left-field stands for a two-run dinger, and we all went crazy. After a nerve-wracking ninth, the players ran onto the field, celebrating as if this really was the World Series.

The good times continued on the night Vancouver claimed the trophy. Three infectiously happy young Latina women in the next row kept up a steady din of cheering in Spanish, standing up to dance every time there was a hint of music. They really lit up whenever the C’s young Venezuelan third baseman Dieferson Barreto came to bat. “Number 5. He’s the best,” one told me. Sister, friend, partner? Who cares?

You knew it was going to be a special evening when perennial also-ran Wasabi won the Sushi Mascot Race. Once again, Logan Warmoth was the hero. The Canadians had only two hits all night, but Warmoth’s two-run single was one of them, and the home team held on to win. As the final batter went down on strikes, the players hurled their gloves into the air and rushed into each other’s arm. It was a joyous sight. No matter this was Single A, no matter the trophy was named after someone they had never heard of and no matter they were playing for a city in a foreign country with a Queen, the metric system and weird coins called loonies, they could not have been happier. Nor could we in the stands. No one wanted to leave.

 

(Photo by Megan Stewart)

 

 

 

 

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YOGI PLAYED BASEBALL, TOO….

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A few words on the late, great Lawrence Peter Berra, known to one and all, except Yankee manager Casey Stengel, as casey-yogiYogi. The Old Perfessor always referred to him as “my man” or “Mr. Berra”. It was his show of respect for the team’s catcher and long-time clean-up hitter. While others might mock and deride Berra’s squat stature, homely mug and lack of verbal sophistication, wise Casey knew just how key Berra was to the success of the Yankees in those long-ago years when they seemed to win the World Series every year. From behind the plate, he guided the team’s often far from brilliant pitching staff and was always a danger at the bat. A perennial MVP candidate during the 1950’s, Berra won the award three times. Only the dubious Barry Bonds has more.

So I am a little perturbed that so much written about Yogi since he died this month has concentrated on his malapropisms and humourous observations (“You observe a lot by watching”), some of which he may actually have said. People who wouldn’t know an intentional walk from a forced march lapped it up. Inevitable, I suppose, in this day of Google, internet lists, short attention spans and the vast reach of social media, but amid all the renewed merriment, often forgotten was how great a ballplayer Yogi Berra really was.

I haven’t forgotten. From my first moment of baseball consciousness, I hated Yogi’s team, the New York Yankees. How could anyone cheer for the Yanks, especially at World Series time, when they regularly took on the Brooklyn Dodgers? The beloved Bums had not only broken baseball’s colour line with Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe, they played in an intimate bandbox of a stadium, festooned by signs for local haberdashers and the like. They didn’t even represent a city. Brooklyn was a borough. Admirable underdogs, all the way.

The Yankees, on the other hand, held their home games in soulless, cavernous Yankee Stadium, where no one, not even Mickey Mantle or Babe Ruth managed to hit a baseball clean out of the park, they had greedy, colourless owners, and were one of the last teams in the majors to field a black player in their line-up, eight years after Robinson’s historic season. As someone once said, rooting for the Yankees was like rooting for General Motors.

They also had Yogi. There was no Yankee batter I feared more than Yogi Berra. Whenever he came up, I got nervous. Sure, Mantle might hit a homer, but he might just as easily strike out. Berra, notorious for swinging at balls so far out of the strike zone they might have been in Poughkeepsie, almost never fanned – just 414 times in 19 seasons. About once every five games. That’s insane for a power hitter. Ted Williams, perhaps the greatest hitter ever, struck out twice as often. But of course, what frightened me more was how often Berra delivered in the clutch. Mantle and Dimaggio, notwithstanding, it was Yogi who led the Yankees in RBI’s for seven straight years. In big games, he seemed nerveless. During the Yankee’s last three World Series against the Dodgers, Berra hit .429, .417 and .369. In 1956, the only Series I really remember, he knocked in 10 runs, while socking three round-trippers, including two in the do-or-die seventh game. Ugh., Berra was not some Bob Uecker-like figure of fun. He was one of the best catchers of all time.

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As much as I couldn’t stand what he did to my favourite teams, it was pretty impossible to dislike Yogi. Grudgingly, and privately, I loved the guy. He was so ordinary, down-to-earth and un-Yankeelike. Although he may have worn the team’s high-class pinstripes,  he was more like your friendly neighbourhood plumber. You wouldn’t catch Berra out partying at New York’s notorious Copacabana Club, or entertaining “baseball Mary’s”. He was married heart and soul to Carmen, a union that lasted 65 years. And when Yogi went to war at the age of 19, he was no bystander, posing for photo-ops. He was an active naval gunner, a decorated veteran of the Allies’ D-Day invasion, and a casualty, wounded during an assault on Marseille.

As for baseball, he hit a home run in his first major league game. His career total of 358 homers is the most by anyone less than 68 inches high. He also had the first pinch-hit home run in World Series history, off the ill-starred Ralph Branca in 1947. Much as it hurts, I have to acknowledge, as well, his 10 World Series rings, part of a Yankee dynasty that won those championships in a ridiculously short span of 15 years. Summed up Hall-of-Famer Mel Ott: “He seemed to be doing everything wrong, yet everything came out right. He stopped everything behind the plate and hit everything in front of it.”

1960-Yogi-in-left-270-AStill, I’m glad to recount my most cherished fBerra moment. It came in the bottom of the ninth inning in the seventh game of the 1960 Series against Pittsburgh, with the score tied. When Bill Mazeroski hit his famous walk-off home run to slay the mighty Yankees, it was Berra, out in left field, who was closest to the ball sailing over the high outfield wall. I can hear the announcer now: “Berra’s going back. He’s looking up….and its gone!” Sorry, Yogi.

As for all those Yogi-isms, I’m so old I can remember when there were only a few of them, lovingly recounted in the Baseball Digest, which I bought every month at the local drugstore. The fact they were in the Digest, before non-baseball fans twigged to how funny Yogi could be and began piling on, makes me think he really did say those things. “I’d like to thank everyone for making this night necessary,” he told fans during Yogi Berra night in St. Louis. “Bill Dickey is learning me his experiences.” The great comment that no one goes to a certain restaurant anymore, because it’s always crowded? If memory serves, Baseball Digest reported that one in the 1960’s, referencing it to an Italian eatery in Minneapolis. So it must be true. “It ain’t over till it’s over” was uttered by Yogi during his time as manager of the New York Mets. And of course, he was right. The Mets came from nowhere to win their division.

But my favourite Yogi-ism referred to the lengthening shadows that would gradually creep over the field at Yankee Stadium, as the game went on. At some point, the pitcher’s mound would be in shadow, while the batter’s box was in sunlight, not an easy situation for a hitter. As Berra put it: “It gets late early out there.” Perfect.

Few players have given such pleasure to those who know baseball, and to those who don’t. Now, it really is over. Lawrence Peter Berra, RIP. And if you come to a fork in the road on the way to the great baseball diamond in the sky, take it.

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P.S. You never know when a Yogi-ism will pop out. At a jazz session I took in Saturday afternoon, keyboard cat Bob Murphy observed: “90 per cent of jazz is half improvisational.” And here is a small, perfect gem of a piece on Yogi Berra by the sweetest prince of all baseball writers, Roger Angell, still turning out gorgeous prose in his 90’s. newyorker.com/news/sporting-scene/postscript-yogi-berra-1925-2015