Saturday, April 2, 2011

Opening Day!

April is here at last! Whatever it is that March is going out as, it's finally gone.

You thought it was spring? April fools!

April 1 brings us many things. It brings a lot of April Fools' Day jokes of course. For some reason it brings several inches of new snow to my yard—will it never end? But most importantly, it brings Opening Day.

I am referring to the first day of the Major League Baseball season. I have always kind of liked baseball. As a kid, my friends and I all had balls, bats and gloves. There was a big empty lot behind the house of one of my friends, and from spring to fall we would be out there playing. Not the kind of organized game that seems to be the only way the kids I know play today, but rather the kind of neighborhood game played by a handful of kids, involving imaginary runners and other bits of improvisation. I sometimes thought about playing little league ball, but my mother wouldn't hear of it, saying that the little league parents were all a bunch of fanatical nuts.

From the time I was about five until the age of thirteen, I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area. The East Bay, to be precise. So it was only natural, I guess, that when watching baseball my friends and I all followed the Oakland A's. This was in the late 1960's and early 1970's, which was a pretty exciting time to be an A's fan. There was a certain aura that surrounded the team during that era, partly because of their success on the field during the first half of the 1970's (such as World Series wins 1972–1974), but also because of the colorful image that their equally colorful owner, Charlie O. Finley, built up around the team.

Back When Life Was Simpler

I went to a few games a year during that period. It was pretty exciting as a kid to go to the Oakland Coliseum to see a live game. I think one of the first games I ever went to was a bat day ca. 1970 or 1971, at which I got a free bat that bore the signature of Rick Monday, who hit a grand slam during that very game; a very big deal at the age of nine or ten. That bat somehow ended up in my mother's garage and my son now has it. I wonder if bat day still exists? These days I imagine there would be significant legal concerns about filling the stands with thousands of potential weapons.

But these happy times were not to last forever… For one thing, I just got older and had other things on my mind. But more significantly, I watched as the amazing team I had followed for so many years disintegrated, as some of the players went on to other teams who paid them more, and others were sold off by Charlie Finley to other teams. It became pretty clear to me that this was all just a business, and that any romantic notions about these guys being a team who were always there for each other were a kind of youthful fantasy. Greatly disillusioned, I lost interest in not only baseball, but in professional sports in general for a very long time.

Fast-forward about 25 years, and here I am moving from Germany, where baseball is largely unknown, to the Boston area. Everywhere I look I see someone wearing a cap with a script "B" on it, and all anyone seems to be talking about is the latest exploits of "Nomah" (AKA star hitter Nomar Garciaparra) and "Manny being Manny", whatever that means. From April to September, the world seems to revolve around the Red Sox and their seemingly eternal quest to escape "the curse of the Bambino". People speak of Bill Buckner's error in the sixth game of the 1986 World Series in the same tones of anger, sadness and resignation in which they might speak of the unexpected death of a close friend.

A Famous Local Landmark (Since Retired)

At first I looked on all this with a certain air of bemused detachment. And then at some point I watched a game or two on TV, I think during the 2004 season as it started to look like the Red Sox would make it at least as far as the playoffs and the local fans, i.e., about 98% of the local population, were starting to show that peculiar mixture of excitement tinged with an undercurrent of an expectation of ultimate defeat that was so characteristic of Red Sox fans at the time. But then the unthinkable happened as the Red Sox went on to defeat the much-hated New York Yankees in the seventh game of the American League Championship Series after having lost the first three games. And then something even more unthinkable happened as they went on to win the World Series for the first time since 1918. And I think I watched pretty much every one of those games.

So I guess I've kind of made my peace with professional baseball. I find that I enjoy watching the games more than I might have been willing to admit previously, although I rarely watch an entire game from start to finish; usually I'll turn it on in the fifth or sixth inning and watch as long as there's still some suspense as to who's going to win. I like the fact that the season is so long; with over 160 games to be played over six long months, a team can't get into the post-season by getting lucky a few times, it has to be consistently good throughout the whole season. It's a marathon and not a sprint.

My Favorite Wife, being of the German persuasion and having grown up without any connection to baseball, will occasionally watch a game with me on TV, but still finds it utterly baffling. To me, it seems really straightforward: each team gets a turn each at being on offense or defense over a cycle of nine innings; the team on offense can keep batting until they have three outs; when batting, the objective is to hit the ball and them run around the bases; the pitcher throws the ball, and each throw can be a ball or a strike; it's a ball if it's thrown outside the strike zone, unless the batter swings at it, in which case it's a strike if he misses, or if he hits it foul (but only the first two foul balls count as strikes), but it's also a strike if it's in the strike zone even if he doesn't swing and, oh, never mind… I guess it is sort of complicated. Unlike MFW's beloved game of soccer, in which a bunch of guys try to kick a ball into a net, the end. What's so exciting about that?

And hardcore fans like to make baseball even more complicated by following the stats. I don't think there are any sports fans anywhere that are as numbers- and trivia-obsessed as hardcore baseball fans. Every game I hear the announcers saying things like, "You know, Bill, that hit by Ortiz is the first time since 1993 that a designated hitter got a double off a fastball thrown by a left-handed pitcher whose mother's name is Martha on a Tuesday during a new moon." Where do they come up with this stuff? Who cares? I just want to see if the guy can hit the ball.

I've only been to one live game since returning to the US. It was my first and only game at Fenway Park. Fenway is a fun place to watch a ball game because it's just so small. Seeing a game there is sort of like watching your favorite band perform in a small club instead of a huge stadium. But the downside of that is that it's also really expensive, at least by my standards; even the "cheap" seats typically go for well above $100, and I'm just not willing to drop five or six hundred dollars for an afternoon's entertainment with the family. Somehow that just seems frivolous and irresponsible (in other words I'm a cheapskate, as my children will explain it). The one game I went to was at the invitation of a sales guy at work who happened to be a college buddy of a major figure in the Red Sox organization and was able to periodically borrow that guy's season tickets. That one time we went he asked me when the last time was that I had been to a major league ball game, and it occurred to me that it was probably when my host was still filling his diapers.

Where Boston Goes to Worship

As for the Red Sox on opening day: they lost their first game 9-5 to the Texas Rangers. Not an auspicious start. Oh well, at least we have, what, another 161 to go?