Ending with a Bang: The Long Weary Road to the Last Out

One hundred years ago, on July 17, 1914, a weary baseball crowd at Pittsburg’s Forbes Field awaited the end of a very long game. For 21 innings the Pirates and the New York Giants battled it out. At last, Larry Doyle of the Giants sent a two-run shot over the wall bringing the game to a score of 3-1, devastating the remaining Pittsburg faithful. It had been a dreadfully long game. Pittsburg’s manager had long since been ejected for arguing a call. The mood was surely solemn. And to top it off, a storm was brewing above the city.

There would be no celebratory fireworks for the Pirates, but there would be an impressive light show when in what has to be the most spectacular baseball play of all time in the bottom of the 21st inning, New York outfielder John Joseph “Red” Murray caught a long fly ball for the third out and was simultaneously knocked unconscious by a lightning strike.

Evidently even God grows weary of baseball after a while.  photo credit: Michael Fienen via photopin cc
Evidently even God grows weary of baseball after a while. photo credit: Michael Fienen via photopin cc

I love baseball, though I’m not a great sports fanatic in general. I only know who won the world cup because my Facebook feed briefly became the hooligan section (Germany, right?). As much as I have tried for my husband’s sake, American football is just beyond me. And all I know about hockey and professional basketball is that they have ridiculously drawn-out playoff schedules that seem to stretch into the next regular season of play.

But baseball captures my attention. So I was thrilled when both of my sons, ages 6 and 9 decided they wanted to play this summer. My 9-year-old had some previous experience. Last summer he played in a non-competitive coach-pitch league where he made some friends, developed some skills, and had a pretty good time. And as a little kiddo he played on a tee ball team where the two biggest highlights of his season were losing a tooth in the infield and handing it to the nearest parent volunteer (who took it quite graciously I thought), and dumping a glove-full of grass on the head of a little girl who had just run to third.

Consider carefully before volunteering to help out with tee ball.  photo credit: courosa via photopin cc
Consider carefully before volunteering to help out with tee ball. photo credit: courosa via photopin cc

Unfortunately this summer hasn’t gone as well. This season we tried a different, competitive league. I’m certainly not opposed to competition. It’s important to learn how to both win and lose well. And the kids have done well will that. But what has broken my heart has been seeing the way that my son and his teammates have been crushed by frustrated and inconsistent coaching and by bad sportsmanship from both parents and coaches (on all the teams).

With only one game to go, we’re nearing the end of the season, and my son doesn’t want to go to practice and doesn’t want to go to the game. I’m going to make him, because it’s a good lesson in honoring commitments, even when it’s tough, but I get it. I don’t really want to go to the game either.

It hasn’t been all bad, of course. He has made some friends, gotten much better at spitting sunflower seeds, and has learned that even in the midst of endless innings stuck in the outfield and pointless arguments between hothead coaches and umpires who aren’t bold enough to toss said coaches from the field, there are bright moments.

His team isn’t going to win first place, but they are well over .500 and my son’s still thrilled when he manages to field the ball well or when he has a good at bat. But I’m also afraid that this kid, who loves to watch this sport as much as I do, may never want to try to play baseball again. Frankly, he’s weary. It’s been a dreadfully long season and going into the last game, against the best team in the league, the mood is solemn and a storm is brewing.

I sincerely hope the game doesn't get called for bad weather because then we'd have to play a make-up.
I also sincerely hope the game doesn’t get called for bad weather because then we’d have to play a make-up.

So although I sincerely hope that none of the players get struck by lightning (and I suppose no coaches or parents either because I am trying to model good sportsmanship), I do hope that there’s something in this last game that sparks his excitement for the sport again and provides him with a good memory to carry into next time.

Nothing will stop this man from catching a fly ball. By Bain News Service, publisher. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
NOTHING will stop Red Murray from ending a 21 inning game. By Bain News Service, publisher. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
I’m not sure that Red Murray remembered the game winning catch he made that day in Pittsburg, but his legend certainly lived on. And so did he. Rumor has it he even played in the very next Giants game. In my book that either makes him the most dedicated baseball player ever, or perhaps this the biggest tall tale in the sport. Either way it’s a good story with a great ending.

Peanuts, Cracker Jack, and the Most Important Political Movement of Our Time

On Tuesday of this week, a movement of monumental proportions began in the United States. Sure we could be focused on political instability in the Ukraine, nuclear missile testing in North Korea, the ongoing saga of US healthcare reform, or even the hot mess that is Arizona politics, but wouldn’t we rather turn our attention to what really matters: baseball.

The opening of the 2014 St. Louis Cardinals world championship season is only about a month away and rumor has it there may even be some other teams playing, too. Obviously it’s time we start turning our national attention to how we plan to celebrate this wondrous event.

It's hard to disagreee with someone who nods all the time.
It’s hard to disagree with someone who nods all the time.

Thirteen gold glove winning Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith has an idea. He has teamed up with Budweiser (an originally American company now owned by the Belgian company InBev that is committed to demonstrating its all-American-ness) to start a petition that would require the Federal government to consider declaring baseball’s opening day a national holiday. The petition started circulating on Tuesday and the goal is to get the necessary 100,000 signatures within thirty days, giving Smith just enough time to deliver it to the White House before opening day.

And why not? I mean, obviously the federal government doesn’t have much else going on and I can’t think of any reason such a move wouldn’t garner bipartisan support. Because baseball is, after all, America’s Pastime.

But is it really all that American? The history of the sport is a little muddy. There’s evidence that there were bat and ball games played even in Ancient Egypt and the most likely direct ancestors of baseball come largely from England where games like Cricket and Rounders have developed and evolved over centuries.

But when in 1903 British sports writer Henry Chadwick penned an article claiming baseball was a derivative of rounders (which to be fair, is an incredibly similar game), Americans cried foul (or threw their  helmets on the ground, kicked up some dirt, and ejected Chadwick from the game). A commission was formed to ascertain the truth.

What they found was a likely made-up story by a thoroughly unreliable witness who insisted that the first game of baseball played on a well-defined diamond was invented by Abner Doubleday in 1839 in Cooperstown, New York. So it was settled. Baseball was as American as apple pie and it still is.

I'm thinking of petitioning the US government to form a commission to ascertain the truth behind the American-ness of apple pie. photo credit: Barbara.K via photopin cc
I’m thinking of petitioning the US government to form a commission to ascertain the truth behind the American-ness of apple pie. photo credit: Barbara.K via photopin cc

Of course the “witness” was five at the time this game would have taken place and the only “evidence” he could provide was a sketch of Doubleday’s field that he himself reproduced more than sixty years later. It’s also proven unlikely that Doubleday was ever in Cooperstown in 1839, but now I’m probably just being picky.

Even the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown has admitted that the opening of its doors in 1939 honored “the mythical ‘first game’ that allegedly was played in Cooperstown on June 12, 1839.” Commissioner of baseball Bud Selig on the other hand “really believe[s] that Abner Doubleday is the ‘Father of Baseball,’” which just goes to show you that at least one noteworthy baseball expert (my husband) is right when he says that Bud Selig should probably be considered unreliable on most things baseball.

The first truly concrete evidence of American baseball is from a 1791 ordinance in Pittsfield, Massachusetts banning play of the sport near a community building, the fine for which was to garnish allowance until any broken windows had been paid for by the players. So it’s safe to conclude that at least a similar sport to that which we now know as baseball, was being played (carelessly) in America.

And that would be really something if there wasn’t just as reliably recorded evidence that baseball (referred to separately from both rounders and cricket) was being played in England by British royalty as early as 1749.

Okay, so in rounders you swing a bat at a ball and score by successfully running around four bases. But she's clearly holding the bat in one hand. It's completely different. See?  photo credit: theirhistory via photopin cc
Okay, so in rounders you swing a bat at a ball and score by successfully running around four bases. But she’s clearly holding the bat in one hand. It’s completely different. See? photo credit: theirhistory via photopin cc

So, is baseball a quintessentially American sport deserving of its own national holiday? I’m not sure. It’s true that no one loves baseball quite like the US (except for maybe Cuba, South Korea, the Netherlands, the Dominican Republic, and Japan, just to name a few). And there can be no doubt that the rules of the sport as it is played today developed primarily in the United States (where it was decided in 1845 that winging a baseball at someone’s head for an out might not constitute fair play).

According to Ozzie Smith 22 million Americans claim to have at least at one time played hooky to enjoy opening day so he reckons we ought to make it official. And though I don’t think I’ll sign the petition, I’m sure he’ll get his signatures. At the time of this posting, it stands at  36, 612 with 27 days remaining. And regardless of what happens, my family will celebrate the way we always do, with hot dogs and nachos, with ice cream in those little plastic batting helmets, and with unbridled enthusiasm.

National holiday or not, I'll be getting my celebration on.
National holiday or not, I’ll be getting my celebration on.

So maybe I do care if I ever get back.

On April 18, 1981, the night before Easter that year, young David Craig attended a baseball game in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, at the invitation of his uncle, Dennis Craig, the home plate umpire. Little did he know that the Triple-A game between the Pawtucket Red Sox and the Rochester Red Wings would make baseball history as the longest professional baseball game ever played.

With a start time of 8:25 p.m., the game began as a regular pitching duel, scoreless for six innings. The Red Wings finally scored a run in the 7th; the Red Sox answered in the 9th. Next came another 11 scoreless innings (yes, you read that right). So then in the 21st inning, when the Red Wings scored, only to have Pawtucket’s Wade Boggs drive in the tying run in the bottom of the inning, no one was particularly happy about it (least of all Boggs). The players endured another 11 scoreless innings until league president Harold Cooper heard about it and demanded the suspension of play at the conclusion of the 32nd inning (at 4:07 a.m.!).

At this point, the crowd had dwindled from 1,740 to a mere 19 (excessively loyal) fans, each of whom received, for their devotion, season passes to the stadium. Not included in the count is David Craig, who by this time, was fast asleep. To the best of his uncle’s knowledge, David Craig has never since been to another baseball game.

And, as much as I love baseball, I can’t say I blame him.

I recently attended a game that had me questioning my own devotion to the sport. On Sunday, June 17th (Father’s Day), my family went to a game at Busch Stadium in St. Louis (a rare treat now that we live on the West Coast) between the Cardinals and the Kansas City Royals.

First, I should explain a little about my own relationship to Cardinal baseball. I am a fan by birth. More specifically, my maternal grandparents were fans. My father (originally just another frustrated Cubs follower) became a dedicated fan by marriage. My siblings are fans. My husband and most of his family are fans. And now the next generation (with the exception of one nephew, who hasn’t been alive long enough yet to fully grasp that the Cubs are never going to win) is made up of Cards fans. Cardinal baseball is entwined with some of my most precious memories of childhood and family.

I am not the person who is going to recite for you the names and stats of every player who has ever worn a Cardinals jersey, but I catch the games when I can and generally follow the team’s ups and downs. I celebrated their World’s Series victories in 1982, 2006, and 2011 and my heart broke those years when they were close enough to taste it, but were ultimately unsuccessful. I follow them closely enough to proudly proclaim that they have the most championship wins of any team in baseball (because the Yankees don’t count).

Still, I have to admit, I wasn’t really that upset to see them lose the Father’s Day game to Kansas City. With the exception of a couple of back-to-back homeruns by Cardinals Matt Holliday and Alan Craig in the 6th, it was a relatively boring game. The Cards were up by 1 in the top of the 9th; their closer Jason Motte was on fire, throwing fast balls the Royals couldn’t see, let alone hit. There were two outs, two strikes, and I was already packing up my kiddos (a little bored, though they had hung in pretty well for little guys) when disaster struck in the form of a solo shot homerun by Kansas City’s Billy Butler.

Inwardly I groaned, but I was fairly confident that the Cardinals would score to end the game. They didn’t. Instead it went on for 6 more innings. Each team had chances to win. Neither did. And the thing about extra inning baseball is that it’s rarely good, because nine innings of baseball is enough to tire most players out. After about 11 or so, the fatigue begins to show. And by 14(when there really should be another stretch because a sing-along might help lift everyone’s spirits), has caught a big case of the Please just let it ends.

The crowd thinned more and more after each half inning until it was pretty much just us and the Kansas City fans. The organist got stuck in a rut of weary charge riffs. And we debated. Even nearly left a couple of times, but you just don’t travel 2000 miles to go to a baseball game and not see it through to the end. By the time it was finally over, the game had lasted around 5 hours. When Kansas City’s Yunieski Bettencourt hit a 2-run homer the 15th, I am ashamed to admit, I was sort of hoping a little bit that the Cards wouldn’t recover (though I would have happily cheered for a three-run homer if one happened to come their way).

I am also a little ashamed to admit how truly upset I was that St. Louis swept the Royals in Kansas City the very next weekend, not, of course, because they won, but because they didn’t win when I was there to see it.

And I have to wonder just how long we would have stayed at the ballpark. Certainly (okay, probably) not 32 innings. The Pawtucket-Rochester game was continued, by the way. The next time the two teams were scheduled to play in Pawtucket, on June 23, in front of a sellout crowd of 5,746, play resumed. In one inning (just under 18 minutes of play), the Red Sox won it in the bottom of the 33rd inning. David Craig wasn’t there to see it.