I haven't followed professional baseball since 1970. Maybe it has something to do with the trauma of that being the year the Beatles broke up. I don't know. But my enthusiasm for players, teams, statistics, and championships evaporated overnight, and I never got it back.
This is the only thing my sports-obsessed son has ever found unforgivable in me, the fact that I cannot chat with him in the language of baseball. In light of my erstwhile enthusiasm for the sport and my cataclysmic and inexplicable loss of interest, this is, in his eyes, nothing short of tragedy.
I sometimes hope he will give me credit for what I used to be. When I was a kid growing up in New Jersey, I could recite chapter and verse of America's favorite pastime. The New York Yankees were my team, and I am unapologetic for this, even in light of what my son tells me (I had to be told) is their current so-so season.
I grew up in the era of Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Moose Skowron, Whitey Ford, and Bobby Richardson. I watched their games on TV in grainy black and white. I bought and traded baseball cards and still recall the sweet aroma of that little shim of pink gum that accompanied the packs. In the morning, before school began, I gathered with my cohorts in the schoolyard and engaged in heated debate about the merits and demerits of teams and players, sometimes with such passion that opposing sides had to be separated by peace-keeping friends or even the teachers.
At the height of my mania for the sport, my father took me to a Yankees game in New York. I saw Mickey Mantle play. He hit a double. The man next to me booed, and I glared at him with all the resentment I could muster.
Those are my credentials, and sometimes, when my son has just about given up on me, I haul these memories out of mothballs and parade them before his ears. Hearing my own stories makes me nostalgic for baseball, but it's never quite enough to make me want to learn who's who these days, or to open the newspaper and read the stats, or go to a professional game.
But I have tried to get my groove back. The other day I sat my son down with this dictum: "Tell me why you like baseball."
Anton: "Because it's good."
Dad: "Why is it good?"
Anton: "Because I like it."
Anton: "Because it's good."
Well, you get the picture. If the responses of my son are any guide, the affinity for baseball is ethereal and hard to define.
Still, although I can't bear to watch baseball on TV (it is interminable when one must grind one's teeth through all the pauses between plays and the jibber-jabber of the announcers), I'll occasionally stop when I'm out and see a live game in progress, either at the Little League field, the high school, or the university. I'll even lean up against a tree and watch kids in a pickup game. And I think I know why this is. In a word – drama.
Baseball is unlike any other American team sport. In basketball and hockey, the action is nonstop. In football, the pageantry of players and officials keeps one interested between the plays.
But baseball is a sport stripped down to the bare essentials. It's really a one-on-one game, with the pitcher facing the batter. No one else really matters until the ball is hit. Which brings me to the tension of that fleeting interval between the pitch and the swing. For all intents and purposes, the batter is totally alone, with one all-important question floating above him like a thought bubble: Will I hit the ball?
The thing is, nobody knows. But if he does hit the ball, the ensuing animation of the fielders is akin to the cogs of a complex machine coming to life. It makes up for all the waiting, the adjusting of caps, the rapping of the bat against cleats, and the pitcher's mound conferences. No matter which team one is rooting for, everyone seems to live for the crack of the bat.
Hmm. Maybe I never lost my groove after all. I'll have to have another go-round with Anton. Sometimes the second time is a charm. If only I could learn the name of that Chinese pitcher who plays for the Yankees. Or is he Japanese?