Monday, November 1, 2010


People will tell you that baseball is boring. Those people will be wrong. I won't wax poetic on why it's not. Far smarter people have done that far better than I ever could.

I've mentioned before, several times, that once upon a time I loved baseball. But then I left it and developed a deep and abiding, though often times tumultuous, love affair with college football, which persists to this day.

Tonight I'll tell you the story of why I first loved baseball and how I came back to it.

Baseball was the first sport I ever learned. I'm fairly certain I was going to baseball games when I was mere weeks old, as I possess a mid-summer birthday. I was born a week before the all star break. (I just looked it up. The Giants beat the Reds the day I was born. Though they had a below .500 season, going 75-86.)

Some of my earliest summer memories are of being at games with my dad, a coloring book on my lap and crayons in my hand as the Giants played. I can tell you about Carnation Chocolate Malts with those god awful scratchy wooden spoons. Those were the prize every Giants game. My dad took us, my brother and I, regularly to games. He's the man that taught me to say in response to his query of what I thought of the Dodgers, "I HATE the Dodgers!" at two years of age. And to this day you can ask anyone in my family, day or night, any season, "What do you hate?" and the answer will always be, without fail, "The Dodgers!"

We went to the cold, barren, concrete behemoth that is Candlestick and froze our tails off at night games, where the prize became hot chocolate instead of malts. I don't know what those games were really like when I was little, if I had a natural curiosity for the game then, like I do now. Its just what we did. I know that in those days going two hours early was the norm. You could stand in the outfield seats, or even along the baselines and easily get autographs and errant batting practice home runs. My dad said once a couple years ago that he missed me being the adorable blonde haired blue eyed baby I was back then (I was. My eye and hair color changed when I was 3. I dunno. Just did.), as the players would offer up booty at my adorableness. If only that gimmick worked now...

Going to games continued for me throughout high school, even when the strike broke every baseball fans' heart and I had a misguided affinity for Chipper Jones of the Braves because they were on TV relentlessly, a Ted Turner owned team aired on a Ted Turner owned network. I, socially awkward, nerdy (but not smart) teenager that I was, who didn't drive, would get a ride to work with my dad, as his station encompassed the ballpark, and he would have his underlings drop me off at the games with my best friend at the time, Michelle (equally nerdy, equally without a license). Seemingly everyone at SI student skipped school on opening day, me include. One year my brother took a note to the dean's office to get permission to get out of school early. The priest at the front office said, "Dr. Baker, I presume?"

I spent more days in my youth at the park down the street from my house, sitting on the outfield grass picking daisies, waiting to pick up the scattered balls from the 5 gallon paint bucket that stood on the mound, than anywhere else. Me, my brother, and the neighbor kid, Matt, whose dad was an absentee heart surgeon, would take batting practice. 20 hits from the left, 20 from the right. My dad would stand there and patiently pitch to us. We were all supposed to be switch hitters, apparently. We'd shag flies, be taught to never ever take our eye off the ball, and how to get the grounder on the hop. Almost every day, all summer long, this is what we did. Until I was ten and Matt moved away and then my parents got divorced and we all grew up. None of us ever excelled at baseball. I didn't play softball in high school, because, well I lack any athletic ability and it wasn't baseball. My brother lacks, as is the family trait, the discipline to be any real good at it. When he moved to the more competitive level of high school, he was unceremoniously cut and that was that. Matt, who is four years older than me, discovered when his family moved to Colorado, that his lack of height (he's Ecksteinian in stature) and the overly competitive nature of baseball in that state meant he would never play into high school either.

The first time I ever recall my dad crying was when he grabbed me and put me on his lap while we were watching Field of Dreams in a movie theatre. I swore that occurred in 1986, but through a conversation with Michael and the use of IMDB, I now know it was 1989. It's one of my more visceral early memories though. That my dad could be brought to cry by a baseball movie. I remember thinking, "It's just a stupid baseball movie!" I watched the movie again as a teenager and found myself bawling by the end. I can't watch it without crying. I get it now.

I've also said before that I can chart the Giants by my childhood crushes. First Will Clark, then JT Snow, with a brief stop at Sean Estes. The crush on JT Snow became such a...thing. My brother would make fun of me mercilessly, saying JT with a Spanish accent after his first couple weeks of high school Spanish. But it also meant that when I was a freshman in college they sent me his rookie card in the mail. And at the beginning of this season I got a JT Snow pin. I couldn't find it forever, but found it tucked in the pocket of one of my purses. I can tell you how I loathed the Barry Bonds long ball era, was taught to love exceptional defense and great small ball. JT Snow was exceptional defense. And then he saved Darren Baker from becoming road kill during a baseball game and how could you not love that? I was at the game two years ago where the Giants signed him for one day, he took the field in a uniform so it was all official and was then pulled. This is not an every day occurrence in baseball. 9 of his 13 seasons with the Giants. Pure class.

But then I went to college, leaving the Giants, and everything else, 2400 miles in my rearview. Even with my burgeoning, new found love of the 93k person stadium, baseball was not forgotten. I mean, football season only lasts 16 weeks, including conference championships and bowl games. I just definitely left pro baseball behind, I would find a new distraction in college ball. Let me repeat: I loathed Barry Bonds. I loathed everything that the steroids era stood for, even before it was the steroids era. So I enjoyed all of my time in Baton Rouge. And when football wrapped up, LSU became one of the best baseball schools in the country. The team of the 90s. Chuck makes fun of the paltry 3 football national titles on the sign outside Tiger Stadium. Well. Inside the baseball stadium stands the sign to our six baseball national titles, our 15 appearances in Omaha, our myriad of NCAA regional appearances. We were good. Ironically enough, we were good for what was dubbed "Gorilla Ball", the long ball.

When football ended, we spent our time going to baseball games. Attending was free, for students. And Alex Box is routinely packed during a weekend series. College baseball is usually run at a loss at most major universities. Not at LSU. Hot dogs are $2, you get to sit in the sun on Saturday and Sunday afternoons and work on your tan, and on Friday nights it's something to do before going to the bars. LSU baseball was pretty freaking awesome.

The baseball players were also accessible. These were my friends. But like most boys, I lost touch with them when they left. The football players were gods. Gigantic mounds of men, instantly recognizable. The baseball players were at the same bars, hanging out, but far less obvious. Even for, at the time, being far better than the football team. So we knew them. Moved among them. This was helped by my roommate being a trainer and knowing them from the training room. I can tell you the story of the time a certain current SF Giant infielder made out with a friend of mine, who she then confused with a different baseball player and made an ass out of herself. I can tell you how I fell asleep on the couch of three players apartment with their friend who was in town, a pitcher at UH, and that literally nothing happened. We chatted on AOL a few times, nice enough guy, but nothing ever materialized from it...much like his career, unfortunately. We, my trainer roommate and I, hung out with these guys. One eventually broke her heart. I do regret that even with our overlapping time at LSU, and the decline of the baseball program in those years, that I never crossed paths with Brian Wilson. I have no idea how that didn't happen. I don't even remember knowing who he was. (I did take a hiatus even from LSU baseball with relationships and other attendant college stupidity, so it kinda makes sense. I also even then wasn't known for having a large circle of people I could bribe into going to games with. But damn! How cool would I be now if him and I had become friends with him then? Sigh.)

Because I was away, I missed the Giants meltdown in the 2002 World Series. I was at school. I'm probably lucky to have been spared that pain. No, my history with baseball doesn't start back up until I moved home.

When I came home I wasn't that interested in baseball. I went to games here and there but didn't make it a priority. In fact, I kinda loathed it because my ex loved it so much. The ex would want to change all our plans around because of a last minute invite to a game. I didn't like drifting too much from the plan. Or was stubborn and unhappy. Either way. Not really my thing. I just wasn't connected to it anymore. I didn't know who these guys were, with Snow, Kent and Aurilia gone. I didn't really even love our fancy new stadium. It had wifi and served sushi and a bunch of yuppies in button downs went there. To be a fan at Candlestick you were hearty, salt of the earth people. What was this BS?

But then something happened. I'm not sure exactly what. I could probably trace it to a couple things. The ex and I became, well, exes, so I wasn't compelled to go to the game at someone else's whim. Before that though, I spent a week at spring training in 2009 and that was awesome. It showed me what baseball could be. How it could feel small and intimate even if it wasn't. How you were allowed the chance to look into the development of players. How they were all accessible. Spring training was awesome. Sharing it with my dad made it that much better. (We'll ignore the ex factor there.) So that summer, I went to a few more games.

And then this summer, with bar study? I found myself going to a LOT of games. Angela loves it, we have fun, we have a routine. So going and sitting with dad and Angela and enjoying it has become part of what we love to do. But throughout the season of going, of loving it, of enjoying watching this team of ragamuffins play baseball, no one would have predicted a) how much fun it would be and b) that we would be this, well, good. We're a win away from the World Series. It's astonishing. THIS team is a win away from the World Series. The 20 previous times a road team has had a 3-1 series lead, they went on to win 18 times. We can't go by odds. The Giants have to go out there and play the sort of well pitched, close games that has become their signature. The first two games, the blowouts, were gifts, but anomalies. The loss was painful but not heartbreaking and not even that unexpected.

Tonight? Wow. Tonight. That was some insanely lights out pitching by a 21 year old from North Carolina. That was just sheer dominance. Can you imagine? Just...think about it for a second. A 21 year old kid stood on a mound and threw the ball repeatedly to a 24 year old kid behind the plate. And they weren't even phased. Not for a second. They did this against a team whose entire AL domination came on their big bats. They played the baseball they knew how to play. The enormity of that... If nothing else happens in their lives, if, as happens with pitchers, for some reason Mad's career flames out, or Buster takes the money and leaves for the Yankees when he's a free agent, or any other myriad of things that could happen, these two did something AMAZING. They owned this game. They were the first rookie tandem since Yogi Berra and Spec Shea in 1947. That's just...that's pure insanity. And truly amazing.

I wrote a lot of short stories in college. And a lot of them had some baseball centric theme. I guess even then it was something innate to me, easy, in a way, to write about. As much as I love football, I somehow understand baseball better. I always thought it was the pitcher who controlled the entire game. He had the ball. He threw the pitches. I always loved catchers, but I always thought it was the pitcher that truly mattered. I'm starting to change that basic assumption. Starting to see the true value in an amazing catcher and the way he works with the pitcher, all because of Buster Posey.

But mostly? I've just learned to love baseball. All over again.

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