A Century and a Half of 'Play Ball!'

Americans can't help it: They love baseball to pieces

The other night, I was at Coors Field here, watching the Rockies play the Houston Astros. I was among 50,116 similarly inclined folks, another routine sellout for a home team certain to be on vacation come World Series time.

Why was I there?

Why were all those others there?

Answer: Such is the hold that baseball has on our hearts. We can't help ourselves. We love the game to smithereens.

We forgive its arrogant players for striking instead of playing a game for paychecks in the millions of dollars that the rest of us would play for free. We forgive management for its greed and owners for being so inept they can't even figure out a way to hire a commissioner, choosing instead to let the game run with the pinpoint guidance system of a toboggan.

We forgive it for not even knowing when its birthday is.

In fact, baseball is celebrating its 150th anniversary today - if you side with those who insist the first game was in Hoboken, N.J., on June 19, 1846. However, others contend the first game was Sept. 23, 1845, in New York City.

Whatever. We forgive baseball for everything. Love will do that.

But make no mistake, most of us don't go to see the games. Come on, would you really like to see the Astros vs. the Rockies?

No, we go because baseball is about what was, like no other sport. And so we use the games as a glorious setting in which to lose ourselves in the comforts of the more leisurely past rather than fretting about the unpredictability of the chaotic future.

Baseball is about comparisons with the past.

The Rockies have a second-baseman named Eric Young. He's OK. But I look at him and imagine Jackie Robinson there.

How does Young compare with Robinson? Please, this is not the Comedy Store. Catcher is Jeff Reed. He's OK, except he doesn't catch or throw the ball very well. How does he compare with Roy Campanella? Oh my goodness. There's Ellis Burks in center field. How does he compare with Mantle and Mays and DiMaggio?

Sorry. I didn't mean to step over that fine line into ridiculousness.

But this is not to say that all the old players were better than more contemporary ones. For example, Seattle's Ken Griffey Jr. almost certainly will be regarded as a player for the ages - and he just might compare extraordinarily well with Mantle and those guys.

For more than 20 years I was a writer for Sports Illustrated and so I have spent an entire misspent life going to games, comparing. Often I found myself in Cincinnati, largely because of investigative reporting I was doing on Pete Rose, who either did or didn't bet on baseball. (It depends on whether you believe Rose or the facts.)

Anyway, I would look at Rose, who amassed a record 4,256 hits, and wonder whether he was better than Ty Cobb, who had 4,191. Yeah, I think he was. Was the Reds' Johnny Bench a better catcher than Bill Dickey? Yup. Was Tris Speaker, who hit better than .300 in 18 seasons, a better hitter than Ted Williams, who only hit .300 or more 16 years? Naw.

That's baseball. Imponderable yet delicious comparisons. I say Cy Young is the best pitcher ever (511 wins and 2,819 strikeouts), and you say that Nolan Ryan (only 324 wins but 5,714 strikeouts) would have put him in the shade. The one thing we can agree on is that the Rockies' Kevin Ritz (30 wins and 342 strikeouts), who pitched at Coors against the Astros, is no threat to either.

We love to compare because nobody can say for sure we're wrong. This is unlike most of life, where it is usually depressingly obvious when we're wrong.

And perhaps above all else, baseball is about us, about our hopes and dreams and plans and schemes - in the past.

We go to baseball games to see ourselves and silently consider what once was. Forever young. Forever in blue jeans.

I look at the Rockies' Vinny Castilla playing third base and I think how much we'd have to talk about because I played third base for my sixth-grade team at University Hill Elementary School in Boulder, Colo. Our coach was Mrs. Lefferdink.

I would stand in my position and pray the ball wouldn't be hit to me because if it was, I'd either be unable to field it or I'd make a bad throw. This was not pessimism. I knew me.

I doubt that Castilla hopes the ball isn't hit to him. But I had great hope I would get better and some day would play in the bigs. Regrettably, I didn't play much baseball after sixth grade, on account of lagging talent and my first meeting with a curve ball.

FOR a lot of us who played baseball, that was when all the world and everything in it seemed within reach. To stand on a baseball field in the warm sun and consider the possibilities was the good life at its very best.

Too, baseball is neat and orderly - unlike life. Look at that lush, healthy grass of Coors Field with no dandelions and home plate always free of dirt and dust. Nothing about it reminds me of home.

It's good so many of us played baseball before we had to seriously play life. It's just like I know that it was true in college that the women wanted to date Democrats so they could have some fun first before marrying Republicans. We had fun playing baseball. We thought it was a prelude to life. It wasn't.

And so we watch it and think what might have been. We compare. With proper coaching, which Mrs. Lefferdink didn't afford me, I might have been better at third base than Brooks Robinson. It's possible.

The Rockies beat the Astros, 7-5. Kevin Ritz walked seven, and somewhere Christy Mathewson is grimacing. Happy Birthday, Baseball.

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