February 16, 2009 12:07 PM
Who screwed up my game?
For me, today, this Presidents Day Monday feels like old times. Really old times.
Sitting in the bedroom of my childhood home, peering out the window at snow falling in Cleveland while the Indians hold spring training in sunny Arizona. The aroma of Momma's breakfast cooking in the kitchen. Standing six feet tall in a bathroom while trying not to bump my head on the ceiling.
Knucklehead hoodlums on the street corner yelling, screaming and threatening to beat each other down before lunch time. OK, so hoodlums fighting is a bit new in this nostalgic scenario. Otherwise, everything at home seems to have the same ol'-same old feeling.
When I was a kid the Indians used to train at Hi Corbett Field in Tucson, which is home now to the Colorado Rockies. There's been talk that the Rockies could move camp from Tucson to some other town in Arizona (Scottsdale would be nice), but that's not what this particular blog entry is about.
This is about my game. Baseball. What has happened to it?
I loved baseball. Still do. Always will.
Baseball and I have a bond. The game nearly cost me my life. Let me explain.
My father used to keep coins hidden in a small, blue colored, plastic-coated case. They were special quarters - I don't know if they were buffalo or Indian ... I just knew they looked different than the regular quarters, and Mr. Brown was excited as heck the day I brought them into his candy store.
See, Daddy thought these coins were safe in his room. One night he and Momma went out, and left Aunt Ruth in charge of watching me and my youngest sister. Aunt Ruth was a sweet lady. She wouldn't harm a fly - especially if you left her a cigarette, a match, an ash tray, a television and a comfortable chair.
While Aunt Ruth puffed cigarettes and watched TV, I went on a treasure hunt in my parents' room. That's where I found the coins in the magic blue case. I didn't take all of them - just three good handfuls.
Just enough to buy baseball cards. They cost 10 cents a pack, so six dollars worth of special coins would be plenty. Sixty packs of baseball cards, each with 10 cards. Can't beat that.
Shoot, I was going to have Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Bob Gibson, Johnny Bench, Sam McDowell, Luis Tiant, Frank Howard, Tom Seaver, Dave McNally, Mike Cuellar, Boog Powell, Frank Robinson and any - and every - star player in the majors.
I showed up at Mr. Brown's store with a jingling pocketful of special quarters and a brown plastic brief case I had earned from selling American Greeting cards. He laughed when I said give me all the baseball cards. Then I pulled the quarters. He looked at both sides of one coin and asked how much did I have. I said six dollars, and began to count them.
He put the cards in the briefcase and I strolled home.
Sixty packs of baseball cards. Six hundred cards. Sixty wrappers that need to be disposed without my parents' knowledge. Oh, and sixty pieces of bubble gum.
Not one Willie Mays card. No Hank Aaron, either. About 100 Cesar Gutierrez cards. I had to go back - for more special quarters and for Willie Mays.
Daddy never said a word, at least that I heard, about the stolen quarters. But he must've known they were missing because I couldn't find the case in his room the second time around.
One night, I happened to get nosey in the bathroom. Boom, there it was. The blue case.
Well, it looked just like the same blue case with the special quarters. Daddy must've figured I'd been messing around and decided to hide them in a new place. But he couldn't fool me, 'cause I'm the slickest 10-year-old this side of Lake Erie.
I pulled the blue case off a shelf in the same cabinet my parents stored several personal items. I opened the case and bam, there they were. Not the special quarters. Daddy's upper dentures.
I freaked and shrieked, because I'd never seen those teeth out of his mouth.
Daddy came into the bathroom. Nine times out of 10, he would have ripped a piece out of my behind. But even he had to laugh at the sight of his dentures scaring me. He straightened up quick and said that the next time I stole from him, I'd need false teeth.
I got the message. I earned my own money selling newspapers to buy more baseball cards, and I've stayed a true fan of the game -- from the days of Mays and Aaron until today.
But it's not the same game.
Way back when, we didn't hear about steroids. I think we'd all be silly to believe players back then didn't use something to enhance their performance in some type of way.
Today's ballplayer travels in comfort, sleeps in comfort and plays in relatively comfortable surroundings. I'm guessing that during the 1960s and 1970s, travel wasn't as comfy. Hotels weren't as comfy. Ballparks weren't as comfy. And if being on top of your game for one day wasn't bad enough, often times teams played two games in one day.
I believe they were called double-headers.
Can you believe that? The league had the audacity to schedule two games in one day, for players barely making $100,000 a year. Today's millionaire ballplayer can't handle a doubleheader unless inclement weather makes it absolutely necessary for scheduling purposes. Two games in one day would be too much for the body to handle.
When today's baseball player can't handle adversity, he tends to turn toward performance-enhancers.
Ernie Banks said, 'Let's play two.' He should've kept quiet.
When I watched baseball on television back in the day, it seemed like the players were on the field playing the game and the cameras just happened to be in the building. They played the game as if the cameras weren't there.
Now it's a different feeling.
Today, the baseball players are made-for-TV freaks. They want to look like football players, bulky and strong. They don't want to play baseball. They want to be entertainers. Never mind winning. I look good in my uniform, don't I?
I bought baseball cards to get numbers, you know, the statistics. Home runs, runs batted in, strikeouts, earned-run averages, wins and losses ... the cards told you before the season, and the daily sports page told you during the season.
I bought baseball cards because they often told a tidbit about the players. You'd find out that your favorite hitter also played the violin, or that your favorite pitcher once played for the Harlem Globetrotters.
I haven't bought a pack of cards in a long time. What do they tell now - the brand of your favorite hitter's performance enhancers? Or that your favorite pitcher has a court date for steroids?
Instead of season and career statistics, do you get year-by-year salaries?
It's the same game of baseball on the field. Pitch. Catch. Hit. But the characters who run the game, along with many of those who play it, have made baseball an awful sad sport.
Football has become America's favorite sport. Basketball might be the most exciting sport. Baseball has become the game for cheaters. Someone needs to change the sport's image in a hurry.
My dad's no longer with us. Brown's corner store has long since closed. Years ago Momma gave my shoebox filled with baseball cards (many of them bought with the special quarters) to one of her nephews. He had no interest and threw them away.
Poetic justice, I guess.
Before I leave town, I'm going to buy a pack of baseball cards. If I'm lucky, they cost less than a dollar.
If I'm real lucky, there will a throwback edition and Willie Mays will turn up.