Baseball is an honest game.
It makes heroes out of men who fail most of the time and titans out of those who get it done when it counts. Errors are counted among its many stats and arguing is allowed… so long as you don't take it too far. Like anything real the game has obvious flaws, but on a good day in mid July you can watch nine players perform with such staggering efficiency that it almost seems choreographed.
My love affair started as most do… with a terrible shellacking I was not at all prepared for.
The Toronto Blue Jays were in town to play the hometown Yankees and I was there! Live, In Color, On The First Base Line. A young boy of eight years really can't ask for more than that. My memories are sketchy on the details but vibrant for so many little things.
I remember the stark contrast of the bright green grass and the almost water color sky. The smell of hot dogs and popcorn as loud jolts of music signaled ancient tribal traditions such as pounding out rhythms or yelling CHARGE! I remember the look on my fathers face as Donnie Baseball took his position. First Base. Instantly I could tell he was different then the others. He projected a calm understanding, unfazed by the spectacle that was going on all around him. I had a feeling he would do something special that day.
The Jays jumped out early. These were the days before Joe Torre, Derek Jeter, and Andy Pettitte would lead a renaissance deserving of the winningest franchise in the history of team sports. Within three innings the score was a lopsided Football game and I got my first taste of what losing does to enthusiasm. Fans headed for the exits in greater numbers as each inning passed and the feverish din surrounding the first pitch had been replaced with the dull hum you feel after a terrible argument at the dinner table.
That's when the magic happened.
Don Mattingly stepped to the plate and in a moment I could only describe as art, belted a colossal Home Run into the upper deck in right field. It made no impact on the final score, the loss was already in the bag. That didn't matter. It was the purpose with which Donnie stepped up to that plate, the lions will to give us something to cheer about that stayed with me. I had a smile on my face a mile wide that train ride back to Brooklyn. I was in love and it was pure.
Over the years I've been blessed to see over a hundred games at Yankee Stadium. Many of them classics.
I was in the house with my estranged mother the day David Wells pitched his perfect game. I remember looking at my mom in the seventh inning… neither of us said a word. I thought to myself "any dame who knows to keep her mouth shut with Zeros On The Board can't be ALL bad". The healing had begun.
Some games have a more individual significance such as seeing David Cone pitch for the last time (in a Red Sox uniform of all things!) or the night Barry Bonds finally passed Don Mattingly for the longest (and loudest) Home Run my eyes ever witnessed in my beloved ballpark. I was sitting on the third base line with Uncle Izzi, my most frequent companion at the House That Ruth Built, on my 15th birthday when Armando Benitez put a high heater in between Tino Martinez's shoulder blades inciting a full out war the likes of which I've not witnessed since. The sight of 6'8" reliever Grahm Loyd sprinting out from the bullpen to throw hands with a reserve first basemen is something special to behold. Bernie Williams would step to the plate following the fracas and on the first pitch deliver a game tying Home Run that still ranks as my favorite live sports experience.
Sadly over the last decade this stable of wonderful memories has been replaced with something seedy. A layer of dirt and grime has caked over the serene days of my youth. I've watched in horror as the Noble Titans I loved as a boy have been replaced by mouth breathing politicians. Speaking in polished sound bites, they give nothing as they take all they can get. I won't name any names… I'm sure you dear reader have a few lined up in your head already. I've steadily watched less and less as the years have gone by. It's easy to fall out of love with such greed and shameful buck passing. Yet in the back of my mind and deep in my heart I figured one day i'd return to my beautiful love and she'd take me strongly in her arms again, I would not remember feeling any of that terrible pain.
All that is over now.
No more dreaming.
Next season the MLB is outlawing collisions at Home Plate. Committing the most cardinal sin possible in sport… the removal of instinct.
This is it… The Final Straw
All the hook slides in the world won't replace the sheer majesty of a split second decision in which the good of the many outweighs the safety of a man. It's a benevolent play full of self sacrifice. Loud, beautiful and telling of a teams desire to win. I have no room in my heart for a game that requires compromise. It is indeed time to move on.
All i'm left with now is Hockey, the last bastion of Team Sports. Try as the NHL might to water it down for the ESPN generation, Hockey remains a game in which grown men mercilessly grind each other to dust for seven games, knock teeth out with furious right hooks and when its all said and done, line up to shake hands… like men.
I'll miss you Baseball. You were my first love. You taught me everything I know about passion. Maybe we'll see each other on a crowded street sometime. You know me, always up for one last shag. Know that I'm always rooting for you and that I'm forever grateful.
But for now my darling this is truly goodbye.