THE BAT stays with me. Isn't that strange? I did so many amazing things on this crazy cross-country trip in search of what baseball means in 2011. I ate a Dodger Dog. I marveled at the artistry of Adrian Gonzalez's swing. ("Artistry" is the only word that comes to mind; if the swing could be frozen, it would be in the Louvre.) I chatted with Vin Scully, took in a game with Bill James on an afternoon when the temperature topped even the heat of Justin Verlander, watched Prince Fielder uncoil his wonderfully violent swing. I contemplated eight simultaneous big league games while eating pizza in Manhattan's East Village, then, 15 hours later and 157 blocks to the north, drank in the sound of a city in full celebration of history. I munched Cracker Jack in Cooperstown, that little American village where people so desperately want to believe baseball was invented.
This is an article from the July 25, 2011 issue
And so ... why the bat? Why does the bat keep reemerging in my mind, like a summer song that won't stop repeating? It's just a bat. It might not even be regulation size. No one used it to crack his 3,000th hit or smack his 500th homer. This bat was never even used in a major league game, or a minor league game, or a Little League game, or any real game at all.
Still ... Why do I think it's all about that bat?
Baseball is a game out of time. This is the sport's defining quality, its badge of honor. The people who love baseball—the poets, the stat geeks, the bleacher bums, the second-guessers, the former pitchers, the collectors—we love baseball for its timelessness. It is a game without a clock. "Keep the rally alive," the marvelous Roger Angell wrote, "and you have defeated time."
The people who do not love baseball feel its timelessness too. They lampoon a game that feels ... so ... yesterday. They mock baseball for not having a clock, for its interminable pauses, for sparking so little violence and motion, for struggling to adapt (No replay? Really?), for being measured by numbers well to the right of decimal points. "You made me love baseball," Lisa told Bart on The Simpsons. "Not as a collection of numbers, but as an unpredictable, passionate game beaten in excitement only by every other sport."
Baseball is a game out of time. And that's what started me on this trip. Think about this for a moment: What else but baseball connects us to America of, say, 1891? What else has burned so long in our consciousness? The American population in 1891 was less than one quarter of what it is now. That was before movies, before television, before radio, before Hershey bars, before Wrigley gum, before even Brett Favre. America the Beautiful had not been written. Dracula did not exist, no Roosevelt had yet been president. Football, under different rules, was played only at a few colleges, there was no golf U.S. Open and until the end of that year basketball was a game bouncing around in the fertile mind of a YMCA instructor named James Naismith. The Olympics, more than 1,500 years since their last staging, would not resume for another five years.
But ... America had baseball. Cy Young was not an award but a 24-year-old kid who won 27 games. Sliding Billy Hamilton stole 111 bases. Cap Anson led a segregated National League in RBIs for the eighth time at age 39. A light-hitting but speedy outfielder named Billy Sunday quit baseball to begin a new life as an evangelist. Attendance soared and salaries skyrocketed, leading The New York Times to lament that baseball was "no longer a sport, but a business."
Here we are, 120 years later, in a very different America, and yes, all the time, we read that baseball can't keep up with the pace of our everyday lives, that television ratings are down, that football long ago took over as the National Pastime. But is that really the surprising part? Or is the surprising part that America still loves and breathes baseball, long after barbershop quartets stopped singing, long after couples stopped waltzing, long after boxers stopped hitting each other with their bare fists.
Why in the heck do so many of us still love baseball?
The Dodgers are bankrupt, but the promotions department obviously has been working overtime because tonight's game is both Andre Ethier Throwback Bobblehead Doll Night and Salute to Mary Hart Night. This irresistible double whammy—springy-necked dolls of the Dodgers' third-best player and an all-night tribute to the longtime host of Entertainment Tonight—has brought a sellout crowd of 56,000 to Dodger Stadium for only the second time since Opening Day. They used to sell out games here almost every night.
"The meaning of baseball, eh?" Vin Scully says. He looks at his watch—he does not have much time, the game will begin soon—and he sits down at a table in the corner of the Dodgers' lunchroom. Scully turns 84 in November. He still spends the bulk of his summer doing the only thing he has wanted to do since he crawled under the family radio as a boy and listened to the sound of the crowd cheering. He calls Dodgers baseball games, of course, like he has since before he and the team moved from Brooklyn to L.A. in 1958.
"Dreams and escape," Scully says after a short pause. The words sound triumphant. All words sound triumphant when Vin Scully says them. This is the man, after all, who followed Kirk Gibson's famous World Series home run with the words: "In a year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened." He is the voice of baseball.
"Children dream about this game," Scully continues. "And when we grow older, the game provides our escape from the troubles of day-to-day life."
Scully smiles, stands, excuses himself. He must get to the booth. I ask him if he still believes in these things now, in 2011, with Dodgers owner Frank McCourt threatening lawsuits and struggling every month just to make payroll, with the franchise now needing bobbleheads and celebrity tributes to draw its once loyal fans (the team has led the National League in attendance 28 times in its half century in Southern California), with jury selection going on in the Roger Clemens perjury case, with the constant drumbeat of stories and opinions about how baseball matters less and less to America. Vin nods and puts his hand on my shoulder.
"Dreams and escape," he says again, "now more than ever."
Here's another thing baseball has outlasted: vinyl. The Tower Records in Manhattan's East Village used to be a musical landmark. The record store closed in 2006, and now the building is where Mike O'Hara and Ryan Wagner are watching all 2,430 regular-season baseball games this season. Major League Baseball calls it the Fan Cave, and it is pimped out with a pool table, Foosball and various pieces of art, including a portrait of Jay-Z in a Yankees cap made entirely with gum balls.
To watch almost 2,500 baseball games, Mike and Ryan—they submitted videos of themselves explaining why they should be chosen as the winners of the Fan Cave contest—must stare daily at a wall of 15 television sets. There is almost never a full slate of 15 games going at once. Now, for instance, there are only eight going on. But all 15 televisions still play. It is as if their minds can no longer acclimate to a blank screen.
"We tried for a while to have the sound on," Mike is saying, "but it was no good. It was too much." He stands to the left of the televisions—near a couple of computers and an 18-foot sculpture of Willie Mays making his 1954 over-the-shoulder World Series catch—and he rests a baseball bat on his right shoulder. His eyes jump from screen to screen. When he lets out a groan or a cheer, it takes a few seconds for me to figure out which game he is watching.
To experience baseball like this—hey, Andrew McCutchen just homered in Pittsburgh, and, wait, look, Minnesota's coming back in Chicago, and, oh, Lance Berkman just hit another home run in St. Louis, and, yep, Roy Halladay's mowing down Braves in Philadelphia, and, oh, they're asking a trivia question in Cleveland, and, hey, did David Ortiz just throw a punch in Boston?—is to turn the game's amps up to 11, to make a leisurely game into something as frantic and modern and overstimulating as the rest of 21st-century American culture.
"Do you like watching baseball like this?" I ask Mike. Two double plays occur at the same moment while a man on East 4th Street bangs on the Fan Cave window until he gets someone inside to give him a thumbs up.
"You get used to it," Mike says.
An instant after Derek Jeter turns on a hanging curveball and knocks it over the leftfield wall at Yankee Stadium for his 3,000th hit, while he rounds the bases to the loudest sound 48,000 New Yorkers can make, someone in the press box asks a trivia question: Who are the four shortstops to reach 3,000 hits?
Baseball is at its best when past and present click together seamlessly, like pieces of Ikea furniture. I think this is the biggest reason there is a different tenor of outrage in baseball when star players are caught or admit to using performance-enhancing drugs. Commissioner Bud Selig has often lamented that there never seemed to be that kind of outrage for steroids in football.
But football is different. Football is about looking ahead, betting on the future. Football is about recruiting and the draft and three-team parlays on Sunday. Sure football celebrates its history, but only as history, like a married couple that every now and then looks at the wedding album. In baseball, history is a living and breathing character. When Mark McGwire hit 70 home runs and then Barry Bonds hit 73 and 762 and both, one publicly, the other tacitly, later acknowledged having used steroids—well, that wasn't just an unhappy incident for many baseball fans. It was the crack in baseball's timeline. It broke up baseball's once hallowed connection to Hank Aaron and Roger Maris and Babe Ruth and the past. If football's history was wiped blank tomorrow, the game would go on, as popular as ever. Not so baseball. Derek Jeter hit a home run in the third inning of a July game against Tampa Bay. The homer tied the game 1--1. So what? Why would anyone care about that? But no one who was there will forget it, because it was Jeter's 3,000th hit, and only 28 men have done it. Ruth did not get 3,000 hits. Lou Gehrig did not. Joe DiMaggio did not. No Yankee ever had. No matter how much people love the NFL, when Clinton Portis becomes the 26th man in NFL history to rush for 10,000 yards, it won't be magical like that.
The four shortstops to reach 3,000 hits? First was Honus Wagner, the Flying Dutchman, who played 21 seasons at the dawn of the 20th century, most of them in Pittsburgh, where he won eight batting titles in an era when that was the greatest thing a hitter could do. Robin Yount was second—he joined Milwaukee when he was 18 years old and throughout the early years of his career he wondered if he was better suited for professional golf. He gave himself to baseball fully in his mid-20s, and in eight years he won two MVP awards and in 1982 led the Brewers to their only pennant.
Third: Cal Ripken Jr. By the time he reached 3,000, he was already a legend. In 1995, the year after the players' strike forced the cancellation of the World Series, Ripken played in his 2,131st straight game, breaking the consecutive-game record held by Lou Gehrig. To many of us, that feat represented the best sports can offer, giving your best effort every day. Something about Cal reminded me of my father.
And Derek Jeter was the fourth.
Ichiro Suzuki once told Bob Costas that his favorite American expression is this: "August in Kansas City ... it's hotter than two rats in a f------ wool sock." It is only July, but it is 109° in Kansas City. Anyway, that's what it said on Bill James's car dashboard.
"You know," Bill says amiably in the third inning as we sit in direct sunlight behind home plate, "we are very much in danger of sunstroke."
He began his quixotic writer's life in the 1970s as a security guard at the Stokely-Van Camp cannery in Lawrence, Kans. (I've often imagined that Bill protected the pork from the beans.) There he would pore over box scores clipped out of The Sporting News and try to figure out baseball. He was intensely interested in what was real about the game. "Write the truest sentence that you know," Ernest Hemingway had said. Papa could not have predicted that a writer would come along whose truest sentences said that errors are a stupid way to judge a player's defense, that creating runs was more important than getting hits, that pitching is not 75% of baseball and so on.
Somewhere along the way—after the best-selling books, the many statistical innovations such as runs created and game scores, the countless people, many of whom populate today's front offices, that he inspired to see baseball differently—James became a cliché to many people. They chose to see him as a joyless baseball accountant who cared more for numbers than the game. This is a million miles from the truth. He says it used to bother him more.
Now we watch Detroit's Justin Verlander pitch. This might be the most thrilling show in baseball in 2011. Verlander throws his fastball 100 mph, he throws breaking balls that seem to skid in midair, and he throws them for all strikes. Three talents, and yet even Bill James has trouble coming up with many other pitchers who possessed that arsenal. Sandy Koufax comes to mind first. We talk a bit about Koufax ... and Walter Johnson ... and Roger Clemens. This is something about baseball. You don't need a 3,000th hit to think about history. It's always there, even on a 109° day in Kansas City when you're watching Justin Verlander overpower a last-place Royals team.
In the fifth inning, with a man on third, Verlander faces a genial catcher named Brayan Pe√±a. In 1999, Pe√±a was 17 and a member of the Cuban national team. One day he walked into a bathroom in Caracas, climbed through a window, jumped into a car and defected from Cuba. Pe√±a plays baseball with the joy of a man who is living a life beyond his dreams. Verlander sweats and kicks at the dirt.
"Who is the most fun player at every position?" Bill asks suddenly. He pulls out a notepad and writes down the positions. We come up with names. Sheffield (for his homicidal swing) and Clemente in the outfield. Bench behind the plate. Verlander throws Pe√±a a 97-mph heater for a ball. Ozzie Smith was great fun to watch at shortstop, obviously. Remember the time he dived for a ball and then, after a bad hop, grabbed it barehanded? Bo Jackson was electrifying. Pe√±a fouls off a curveball. Andruw Jones was amazing in his prime; he played such a shallow centerfield. Ichiro has always been fun with the way he seems halfway to first base by the time he finishes his swing. I always loved watching Greg Maddux pitch. Bill enjoyed a lefthander named Danny Jackson. Pe√±a watches a 98-mph fastball catch the corner for strike two.
"It really is a matter of personal preference, isn't it?" Bill says. And at that moment, Verlander unleashes an 83-mph pitch that defies description. They would call it a slider on the radio, but we both thought it bent more than any slider either of us had seen before. And yet it did not break like a curveball. It looked like the ball changed lanes at the last second, a tourist trying not to miss his exit. Pe√±a swung, sort of, but he missed the ball by something like three feet. You know how sometimes the sound and picture of movies get out of sync? Pe√±a's swing was like that—not just late and wide, but askew somehow, as if it didn't quite fit the scene.
Bill and I stopped what we were doing. And then, at the same time, we both just began to laugh.
Baseball's biggest problems, like those of us with thinning hair, seem to happen whenever it tries to act young. The All-Star Game in Phoenix feels to me like a three-day comb-over. Look, the All-Star Game will never be what it was. It thrived in a time when America's sports landscape wasn't crowded, long before the Internet and chat boards and channel 1,904, long before you could watch almost every baseball game on your iPad. It used to be exotic—and rare—for most of us to see the best players. It used to be that American Leaguers and National Leaguers would face each other only at the All-Star Game and in the World Series. Then came free agency and interleague play.
Progress leaves behind casualties. The efforts to keep the All-Star Game vibrant and cool—such as the interminable Home Run Derby, the baffling player-selection process and giving home field advantage in the World Series to the winning league—make baseball look as if it's wearing black socks with sandals and saying "dude" a lot. Many of the game's most popular players, including Jeter himself, were not at the game this year. And fewer people watch it on television than ever before.
There are undeniably marvelous moments over All-Star Game weekend. Toronto's Jose Bautista makes a wonderful sliding catch. Prince Fielder hits an opposite-field home run that wins him the MVP award. Brian Wilson's beard comes in to get the save for the National League. But all of it feels manufactured. Even the sellout crowd in Arizona—All-Star Games still sell out and undeniably still create buzz in American cities—seems uncertain about who to cheer and what's the point. As I walk back with the crowd through the stifling Phoenix heat, I hear a young couple talking.
He says, "Well, that was pretty fun, right?"
She says, "I'm glad our tickets were free."
Well, let's see what we have in here," Brad Horn says, and he pulls down a box with the word GEHRIG on the side. Brad has the excessively long title of Senior Director for Communications and Education at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. And he is taking me around the most extraordinary baseball room in the entire world. These are the archives down in the bowels of the Hall of Fame. There are 25,000 artifacts here in boxes, on shelves, inside cabinets, hanging on walls. These are the artifacts that, for one reason or another, are not on display in the Hall itself.
He pulls down this box and opens it, and inside is a Lou Gehrig Yankees jersey. On the wall are dozens and dozens more boxes just like it—with names like Rose and Foxx and Mays and Kaline. Behind us on a shelf are the spikes Tony Gwynn wore when he got his 3,000th hit. On a table are Babe Ruth's old bowling shoes. The Hall of Fame does not care for autographs—"We are about collecting moments, and autographs don't tell the story of baseball," Horn says—but even so, at the end of the aisle, are boxes and boxes of autographed baseballs from every Hall of Famer.
To say that the items in this room are priceless is to undersell the point—no amount of money can replace Roberto Clemente's hat when he got his 3,000th hit, or the plaque that commemorated the longest home run ever hit at Minnesota's old Metropolitan Stadium (Harmon Killebrew blasted one 520 feet off Lew Burdette on June 3, 1967) or the last piece of wood chopped by Cy Young. The items in this room are worth exactly as much or as little as the person who sees them imagines.
Then I see a little black case—something you might use to hold a clarinet. "What's that?" I ask.
"You know," Brad says.
"No, what is it?"
He reaches down, opens the case, says a single word: "Wonderboy."
Wonderboy. You already know: Wonderboy is the bat used in the movie The Natural. The hero of the movie, Roy Hobbs, made Wonderboy from a tree split in half by lightning. Roy's father collapsed and died under that tree. And with that bat, an aging Roy Hobbs knocked the cover off the baseball and led the New York Knights to the most surprising hot streak since, well, since the Pittsburgh Pirates this year.
Roy Hobbs isn't real, of course. The New York Knights never played. Wonderboy is just a movie prop. And still, this is the item that explodes my imagination. I saw the glove Willie Mays used to make his legendary '54 Series catch, the one captured in that sculpture in the Fan Cave. I saw the rosin bag Ralph Terry used before throwing the pitch Bill Mazeroski hit for a home run to win the 1960 World Series. I saw an oil painting of Hank Aaron that looked so much like a photograph, people kept pressing their noses up against it to find the texture of the paint.
So why is it that as I end this trip, I keep thinking about Wonderboy?
What are you looking for?" my father had asked me. That was the day before this trip began. Steven Posnanski (no middle name; he often said his family was too poor to afford one) learned baseball in the 1960s. He learned baseball to teach it to me. He and my mother came to America three years before I was born. He had played soccer semiprofessionally on the sandlots of Poland, and he gravitated toward football (Jim Brown captured his imagination) and boxing (he was mesmerized by Ali). Baseball felt foreign to him, slow and distant. But he believed that the duty of an American father was to find fireworks on Independence Day, to carve the turkey on Thanksgiving and to teach baseball to his son.
What was I looking for? While in Los Angeles, I heard the awful news about Shannon Stone, a Texas firefighter who brought his son to a Rangers game and fell and died when he lost his balance trying to catch a baseball. In New York, I saw a young man named Christian Lopez grab Derek Jeter's 3,000th hit and then saw his father, Raul, cover him as protection from the crowd. In Arizona, I saw the determined look on Jose Cano's face as he pitched to his son Robinson in the Home Run Derby.
And in Cooperstown, I saw Wonderboy—the bat a boy carved to remind himself of his father. My father worked for most of his life in a sweater factory. When he got home each day—oil on his pants, salami on his breath—we would go to the backyard and play catch. All the while he talked: Get in front of the ball... . Put the glove under your mattress to break it in... . Don't step into the bucket... . Watch how Henry Aaron steps into the ball... . Choke up on the bat with two strikes... . Get back to your feet quickly, like Brooks Robinson... . Remember, it's easier to run in on the ball than to go back.
"They're sending you around to the country to find the meaning of baseball?" he asked.
"Something like that," I said. He looked at me with a mix of disbelief and wonder and, sure, pride. Dad's job was to keep the sweater machines running. It was a clear assignment with a clear mission—plain questions and plain answers and no time for what he always called "baloney."
"Well, baseball is fun, right?" he said.