Baseball's Extra Innings

By Mike Harrington
The Buffalo News
August 17, 2012

"The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It's been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game is a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and it could be again." - James Earl Jones to Kevin Costner in "Field of Dreams"
Baseball has been there since before the turn of the century - the last century. Through prosperity and depression. War and peace. Through triumph and tragedy. What are some of our greatest post-9/11 images from the sports world? Baseball.
Think of President George W. Bush tossing his first pitch during the World Series at Yankee Stadium.
Dying Cardinals announcer Jack Buck reading his ode to the victims, a poem that asked and answered, "Should we be here? Yes."
The Mets and Yankees wearing caps to honor first responders and getting cheered everywhere - even in Boston. The iconic picture of the Mariners on their knees planting the American flag on the mound in Seattle to celebrate their division championship.
When we've needed it most, baseball has been there. But baseball is there in simpler times, too.
It is still the national pastime, even though football might bring out more fervor from bare-chested painted fans and it seems soccer might bring out more kids to play. And, sure, it's tough to watch the World Series when games start pushing midnight.
But that doesn't mean people don't care. They get up in the morning, pop open their smartphone or laptop and find out what happened. (I've been in the park for every pitch of the last 15 World Series and you should see my email box the next morning - and in more recent times, my Twitter feed.)
Baseball still matters to America. Big-time.
At a time when the NFL worries its in-game experience is being supplanted by watching the flat-screen at home on the couch, more people than ever are going to the ballpark.
The last eight years make up the eight best-attended seasons in the history of Major League Baseball. The 2012 season might be the first one in history in which every club averages more than 20,000 fans per game (hold on, Cleveland).
As of last Sunday, 17 of the 30 major-league teams were up in attendance from last year - and 10 of them were up by at least 3,000 fans per game. Four of the 13 that were down have dropped fewer than 600 fans per game. Nine clubs finished 2011 with more than three million fans. This is no dying sport.
Clicking turnstiles are a similar story in the minors, which finished July with a lead of more than 500,000 tickets over last year, and with 31.5 million tickets sold overall.
"At a local team level, baseball has never marketed the sport better," said Curt Smith, University of Rochester senior lecturer in English and one of the nation's foremost baseball historians. "People appreciate that. Baseball is still easily the most affordable of the major sports. It's a good family sport. In the sewer that we call American culture in 2012, baseball is an oasis from bad language, bad role models."
Granted, it wasn't always this way. From 1952-1966, the Red Sox never averaged more than 16,000 per game in Fenway Park. From 1952-1975, the Yankees never averaged more than 22,000 per game. Those numbers seem silly now.
"Baseball stands out because of the history of the sport," said John Boutet, the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame board member who led a Facebook fundraising drive that culminated last weekend in the unveiling of a plaque at the site of the old Offermann Stadium. "It's so much older than any of the other ones, in an American sense.
"This was an American game. It's our sport. Soccer has never been our sport. Football has taken over some the last couple decades but I just re-watched Ken Burns 'Baseball' [the award-winning 1994 PBS Documentary that's broken down into 'innings']. Whenever you need to remember why it's so special, you go watch a few innings of that and you know."
But attendance figures tell only one small part of the story.
"There's a man in Mobile who remembers that Honus Wagner hit a triple in Pittsburgh 46 years ago. That's baseball. So is the scout reporting that a 16-year-old sandlot pitcher in Cheyenne is a coming Walter Johnson. Baseball is a spirited race of man against man, reflex against reflex. A game of inches. Every skill is measured. Every heroic, every failing is seen and cheered. Or booed. And then becomes a statistic." - Ernie Harwell, "The Game for All America" (1955).
Why do we love baseball? One reason is numbers. The game is full of them. And they all have meaning.
Fans love batting averages, home runs, RBIs, ERA. But now we have a whole generation of geeks who have turned OPS and WHIP into mainstream stats. And don't forgot BABIP, WAR, UZR and VORP.
Think of some of the great stats in history: 4,256, 2,632, 714, 511, 56, .367. They all have instant significance to even casual baseball fans. (For the uninitiated, they're tied to Pete Rose, Cal Ripken Jr., Babe Ruth, Cy Young, Joe DiMaggio and Ty Cobb.)
A pitcher going for 300 wins or a batter going for 500 or 600 home runs or 3,000 hits becomes a national story for days on end. Imagine the attention today's media world would give if someone even threatened 56 consecutive games (DiMaggio's hit streak of 1941) or 30 wins by a pitcher (not reached since 1968).
Where would a whole generation of fans be the last 30 years without fantasy baseball? It's kept us beholden to box scores every day.
Other numbers are not statistics, but refer to great games of the past. We know historical postseason markers like Game Five in 1956 or Game Seven in 1960, Game Six in 1975 or 1986. Game One in 1988, Game Seven in 1991 or 2001. Game Four (ALCS or World Series) in 2004, or Game Six in 2011.
Seriously now, who was even in Super Bowl XXXIX, let alone who won it? Who was in the Stanley Cup final in 2002? Most of us have to look it up.
Not with baseball. I listed 10 revered classic games above. Most real fans could probably identify at least seven or eight of them. Many people could plow right through the list with ease.
"And there used to be a ballpark where the field was warm and green. And the people played their crazy game with a joy I'd never seen. And the air was such a wonder from the hot dogs and the beer. Yes, there used to be a ballpark right here." - Sung by Frank Sinatra, "There Used to Be a Ballpark."
You gravitate to a baseball stadium. It can be part of a neighborhood like Wrigley Field or Fenway, wonderfully called "a lyric little bandbox of a ballpark" by John Updike in a 1960 New Yorker article. Or part of a downtown revitalization project like Camden Yards in Baltimore, Safeco Field in Seattle or AT&T Park in San Francisco. There are unique features in every single one.
Go to most NHL/NBA arenas, and you can barely distinguish one from the next. Same with football stadiums.
Not so in baseball. There is the Wrigley Ivy, Fenway's Green Monster, the fountains in Kansas City, McCovey Cove in San Fran, the frieze of Yankee Stadium, the apple at Citi Field, the Liberty Bell in Citizens Bank Park, Roberto Clemente Bridge outside Pittsburgh's PNC Park, Tal's Hill in Houston, Bernie Brewer's slide in Milwaukee.
And that's before we even talk food. There are local favorites at the ballparks that don't have anywhere near the renown at concession stands in other sports.
"It means so much because it's part of our youth," said Pete Weber, Buffalo Baseball Hall of Famer and longtime former Bisons announcer. "There are certainly arena 'experiences,' but the ballpark experience is so much different. I don't care if it's in a domed stadium in Toronto or Phoenix or one of the great places, but you just become part of it. You sink in and become an embedded figure. You are part of it. You are the furniture."
The Offermann dedication was a ceremony held to place a marker at the site of the Bisons' home from 1889-1960 in the wake of the 50th anniversary of its demolition. Going to the corner of East Ferry and Michigan to see a plaque is new to Buffalo but has been widely done in other cities.Old ballparks are marked reverently in neighborhoods and parking lots in places like Cleveland, Atlanta, St. Louis, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Chicago, New York and Baltimore.
There's a seat and home-plate marking at the Mall of America in suburban Minneapolis at the spot of old Metropolitan Stadium. Parts of the brick outfield wall of Forbes Field remain standing on the University of Pittsburgh campus. Home plate is encased in glass next door in a law library. A diamond has popped up in Detroit at the site of Tiger Stadium.
"There is something about baseball whereby ballparks are not just bricks and mortar but they really do become animate," said Smith. "They become almost personal ... People develop this extraordinary attachment that brings tears to your eyes."
"Baseball. Just a game. As simple as a ball and bat, and yet as complex as the American spirit it symbolizes. It's a sport, a business and sometimes almost even religion." - Harwell
Who has the biggest pulpit day after day? The announcer. Mostly on radio and now on television, too, we connect our cities to our play-by-play men.
Smith, the author of 15 books and a former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush, is considered the preeminent authority on baseball announcers. His most recent work is "Mercy! A Celebration of Fenway Park's Centennial Told Through Red Sox Radio and TV." He interviewed 116 play-by-play men for his 2011 work, "A Talk in the Park."
"The announcers become extended members of the family and you know them on a first-name basis," he said. "You never meet them, but you know them - or think you know them. You could invite them to Thanksgiving dinner, open the door, shake their hand, sit them down, eat turkey and there would never be a moment of awkwardness."
Fans quickly learn about the lives of their favorite announcers. After all, there are plenty of chances to chat even during a game. Smith laughed at the thought of late Yankees voice Phil Rizzuto often talking about his love for Italian food and his fear of thunderstorms.
"I loved Phil Rizzuto," Smith said. "He made you laugh and you knew him, you really did. There were 99 percent of the people who had never met him, but 100 percent who felt we knew him and loved him. We would have had cannolis with him."
Through his books, Smith has developed a relationship with the big names in the booth and understands the abject sense of loss at the passing of figures like St. Louis' Buck, Chicago's Harry Caray, Philadelphia's Harry Kalas, Toronto's Tom Cheek and Seattle's Dave Niehaus. He interviewed Niehaus three days before the beloved Mariners voice died of a heart attack in November 2010.
"He sounded fine and his death hit me like an uncle had died," Smith said. "There was a personal void in my life and I'm sure in the lives of millions of people in the Pacific Northwest. The Seattle Times voted him among the 10 most influential people in the area for the entire century. Wow. That doesn't happen in any other sport."
"Baseball is the president tossing out the first ball of the season and a scrubby schoolboy playing catch with his dad on a Mississippi farm. A tall, thin old man waving a scorecard from the corner of his dugout. That's baseball. And so is the big, fat guy with a bulbous nose running home one of his 714 home runs. In baseball, democracy shines its clearest. The only race that matters is the race to the bag. The creed is the rulebook, and color? Merely something to distinguish one team's uniform from another." - Harwell
Take any flight anywhere in this country and look out the window. What are the most recognizable features from 30,000 feet? Backyard pools. Golf courses. And baseball diamonds. They're everywhere.
People say soccer is killing baseball among kids. Hardly. Little leagues remain prominent pieces of Americana. The Hertel North Park League at Shoshone Park in Buffalo, for instance, has had more than 900 kids. Longtime league president Don Morris said the numbers were only in the 600s in the late 1980s.
"The difference if you go back 20 or 30 years is there weren't as many organized leagues," Morris said. "Kids were forced to make a team or play on their own. There are no kids playing on their own anymore, and that's the tough part. If you don't give kids a full uniform, an umpire with a blue shirts, two baseballs and a $200 bat, they're not bothered. We played five-on-five. You'd play morning, noon and night with a wiffle ball. It's just different now."
Competition is keen from soccer, from summer hockey and basketball. And from the start of fall football practice - in August.
"There's a lot of competition for the same bunch of kids," Morris said. "We have a good league here... We give the kids a good product for a good price. We put a good product on the field for them and I think it works. It's the reason we get so many. You have a core of kids that are still baseball-crazy."
Little League gets kids an early start on a pastime that has transcended sport and crossed into popular culture. Starting when "The Natural" was filmed here in 1983, there's been a boom of baseball movies the last 30 years. The musical score from that film's climactic moment is instantly recognizable even if you're not a baseball fan.
"I believe in the Church of Baseball." - Susan Sarandon as Annie Savoy, "Bull Durham."
There are great quotes from baseball movies, too. Field of Dreams' famous line, "If you build it, they will come" has become lexicon for seemingly every urban planner, construction manager and politician.
When someone asks you what to buy a friend for a wedding and you instantly shoot back, "Candlesticks make a good gift or maybe you could find out where she's registered and maybe a place-setting or maybe a silverware pattern," do they look at you funny? Or do they know you're just quoting "Bull Durham"?
Look at all the daily references to baseball in our lives. In dating, we're often just trying "to get to first base." When we take a big idea to the boss and hope to get it approved, we're trying "to hit a home run."
When we fail in life, we're just plain sick of "striking out."
Who's On First? I don't know. But Abbott and Costello did.
And when we're really down and someone says to us, "There's no crying in [Whatever]," they're inspired by Tom Hanks' famous "There's no crying in baseball!" speech from "A League of Their Own."
"Baseball is 90 percent mental. The other half is physical." - Yogi Berra
In our fast-paced, find-out-about-it-20-minutes-ago world, people can struggle with the pace of baseball. It's a thinking man's game, not a burst of physical reaction or the mere use of brute force on an opponent. Do I try to steal the next base? On this pitch or the next one? Do I run to the next base or hold on? Which base do I throw to? Should I throw it at all, or not risk an error?
"It's a very relaxing sport," said 86-year-old Frank Offermann Jr., son of the former Bisons owner who gave the old stadium his name. "Not only when you're playing it but when you're watching it. It challenges your intellect, keeps your juices flowing."
"Kids want action and I understand that," said Hertel North Park's Morris. "They want to be running at someone like football or running up and down the field with soccer. Basketball is constant motion. Baseball is a thinking man's game. It does have its own pace and it does take time. That's the way it is. That's what makes it the game it is."
"Why, the fairy tale of Willie Mays making a brilliant World Series catch and then dashing off to play stickball in the street with his teenage pals. That's baseball. So is the husky voice of a doomed Lou Gehrig saying, 'I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this Earth.'
"Baseball is a man named Campanella telling the nation's business leaders, 'You have to be a man to be a big leaguer, but you have to have a lot of little boy in you, too.' This is a game for America, this baseball." - Harwell