This month’s blog is being written in the middle of a Great Plains snowstorm -- so my daughter Laura’s reminder to me this morning (Monday, 11 Feb) that today is the day that pitchers and catchers report to spring training was welcome news indeed. There is hope after all that perhaps someday the sun will shine again and that we’ll hear news about something other than another possible government shut down. I am ready for both possibilities. I guess it is impossible to ignore politics completely, so I will mention that a Christmas gift from my daughter Karen was one of those DNA ancestry checks. I received the results back last week. It showed I am a little bit of almost everything except perhaps the tribe of pygmy head hunters from the Amazon rain forest. Of more significance is that I am 0.1% Native American, which apparently qualifies me to run for the U.S. Senate.
In the interest of full disclosure, this month’s epistle will be predominantly about baseball, so those whose preference has turned to other more violent or less violent pastimes can simply click the “delete” button and go on to other more inviting subjects.
Just a small item or two before turning to sports: For those with an abiding interest in military history, I just finished a book titled Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-1975 by Max Hastings. I read the book as part of the research for the Vietnam chapter on a prospective effort to be titled In the Shadows of Victory III: America’s Forgotten Military Leaders, The Cold War to Present Day. As I have mentioned before, it uncertain that the book will ever see the light of day. But, if it does, it must include a discussion on Vietnam. Max Hastings (officially Sir Max Hastings) is a British author/historian whose view, as the book title implies, is that the Vietnam War should probably never have been fought, and given that it was, it was fought in the wrong way. Within that frame of reference it is an exhaustively researched, well-balanced book that praises and criticizes leaders (both military and political) on all sides and military operations conducted by all the warring parties. As is almost always the case when I get immersed in Vietnam – regardless of author or what the “take” on the war is – I end up with feelings of sadness, frustration, disappointment, and probably more anger than I care to admit. Whatever your views on the war, this is a well-written, well-researched book. A warning though for those who might be interested – it is 755 narrative pages long and written in considerable detail.
I have just started a book titled The Savior Generals that was recommended to me by a high school friend. The subtitle “How Five Great Commanders Saved Wars That Were Lost” captures the gist of the book – the focus is on leaders who somehow resurrected seemingly lost or hopeless causes. I was intrigued by the subject because it sort of parallels the “forgotten military leaders” theme that I have written a bit about.
Now to the important stuff … baseball! In 2012, Rowman & Littlefield published a baseball book of mine titled “Touching All the Bases.” The book was a hoot to write and research, but 2012 was a most unusual year in baseball. The book has appendices on various subjects identifying names and dates associated with things like perfect games, unassisted triple plays, etc. Those events are so rare that normally years elapse between occurrences. Until 2012, there had been only 19 perfect games pitched in all of baseball history. In 2012, there were THREE in that year alone. It seemed like every time the publisher had the manuscript complete and ready for print someone else would throw a perfect game. My calls to the publisher became almost laughable. I could almost anticipate the voice at the other end saying “Not you again!” when I would call to see if we could stop the presses so we could add another one to the list. Finally, we ran out of time: the third perfect game that year occurred too late for us to get it in the book. (There have been none since 2012 by the way.) Perfect games weren’t the only issue; many other records fell as well -- number of career grand slam homeruns, for example. Each time warranted a phone call to see if there was a chance to fit it in. What an ordeal. Fortunately the editors seemed to have a good sense of humor.
One of the appendices of the book that was especially fun to do was about baseball movies. What I wrote in 2012 was
“Recent compilations show more than 75 feature movies made about baseball. The earliest major film about the sport was The Pride of the Yankees (1942). Starring Gary Cooper, the film told the story of Lou Gehrig. The baseball movies that followed over the years have targeted audiences ranging from adults to children and have contained themes stretching from comedy to the paranormal. Many have been quite good; some have been downright awful.
“There have been a plethora of “top 10” lists of favorite baseball movies, and the ratings tend to shift over time. Most recent versions contain some combination of the following films.
The Bad News Bears (1976)
Bang the Drum Slowly (1973)
Bull Durham (1988)
Eight Men Out (1988)
Fear Strikes Out (1957)
Field of Dreams (1989)
A League of Their Own (1992)
Major League (1989)
The Natural (1984)
The Pride of the Yankees (1942)
My personal favorites from that list are Field of Dreams and Major League. Since the book was published, among quite a few more recent baseball movies, two were particularly good: Trouble with the Curve (2012) –- Clint Eastwood plays a grizzled baseball scout; and 42 (2013) is the Jackie Robinson story. Other pre-2012 movies that have made their way up several recent lists include The Rookie (2002); For the Love of the Game (1994); and 61 (2001).
For the Love of the Game was a pleasant surprise to me. The movie was based on a book by Michael Shaara who wrote what I think is one of the best of all war novels: The Killer Angels. I had no idea he had written anything about baseball. The storyline is about a pitcher in the midst of throwing a perfect game. Kevin Costner stars.
Costner also stars in Field of Dreams. I think the James Earl Jones speech in that movie is one of the best ever pieces of movie dialogue. The extended speech is a bit longer, but the part that most of us baseball fans recall is “The one constant through all the years is baseball …. This field, this game is part of our past. It reminds us of all that once was good and could be again. People will come, Ray.”
It seems appropriate – if it is not, I hope you will indulge me – to dispense with the usual poetry and instead celebrate the onset of the baseball season. The story “The Barnyard Stadium” appeared in a book titled It’s Not the Heat, It’s the Humidity published in December 2014 by Shapato Publishing, a small Iowa-based publisher. I hope you will enjoy it.
So, my friends, as we get ready for the snow to stop and spring to come, best wishes for a great season.
THE BARNYARD STADIUM
It all began with the after chores “nothing to do, no one to play with” grousing of a young boy growing up on a farm a mile or so away from the nearest neighbors. My mother, a terrific baseball fan, got tired of hearing it, found a used ball and glove and showed me how to throw the ball on the roof of a small shed and catch it as it rolled back down.
Soon the low granary did not present enough of a challenge, so I took my game to the barn, a much taller building with a steep gable. There, the ball came off much faster – except for those times when I threw it too hard and it rolled over the top. Then I had to waste precious minutes trying to find it in the woodpile on the other side.
Eventually, as my fascination with the game grew, the farm itself – the cinder driveway and the surrounding grain bins – became in my mind, a major league ballpark. The famous “Green Monster” left field wall at Fenway Park was really a two-strand barbed wire fence beyond which the family’s milk cow grazed placidly in the sun. Toward right field, the chicken coop was about where a first base dugout would be. Down the third base line, grandstands were formed by the barn, a small work shop and one or two parked tractors. Thousands of people sat in those stands – well, really, my dog Smokey and one or two stray cats – all transfixed as I came to bat with the bases loaded and two outs in the bottom of the ninth. The pasture fence and a long Quonset hut formed stadium walls which I tried to clear by hitting rocks with a wooden stick. With mom’s intervention my dad tolerated – just barely – a cracked windshield and a several dents in the sides of two tin sheds.
Later, I outlined a strike zone with chalk on the side of the barn and spent countless hours pitching imaginary games with an old tennis ball. Eventually I borrowed a roll of black tape and marked the strike zone into quadrants: high inside, high outside, low inside, low outside. Any miss from the square I was throwing at constituted a hit for the other team – the further the miss, the longer the hit.
Fortunately for me, my parents smiled at the good-natured jests of neighbors who saw my strike zone while driving past and commented that my artwork messed up the appearance of an otherwise nice-looking farm building.
When I was 12, I pitched a perfect game against that barn. I was determined not to fudge or let up, even though in the ninth inning I fell behind 3-0 in the count to the leadoff hitter. Fortunately, the next three pitches were all in the low outside box, just where they were intended to be. For the next week, much to my mother’s bemusement, I walked around the house smiling and cocky. Eventually that got to be too much and for the next several days I had to do extra chores.
In later years I have on occasion driven past that long since abandoned farmstead. Each time, visions of the perfect game and that grand slam homerun in the bottom of the ninth come flooding back as a vivid as if they happened yesterday. In my mind’s eye the stadium still exists, far surpassing the magic of any major league ballpark.