Tip of the Hat

I’m a baseball girl at heart.

Before you roll your eyes and stifle a yawn, let me say that I’ve heard the complaints: it’s a sloooow game. It’s a fifteen-minutes-of-action-crammed-into-a-three-hour-game game. A game where you can’t score on defense. A game that gets stopped if it rains. A game of waiting. A game of mind games. A game played in a park by grown men wearing caps where the object is to be safe at home (according to George Carlin). A game where you keep playing until someone wins, dammit! No clock, no timeouts where everyone leaves the field, no hurry-up offense, no sudden death, no penalty kicks, no stalling.

I like all that. I like the one-on-one of the pitcher and batter. I like a sweetly turned double play. I like the choreography of players moving to back up the play — knowing where they’ll go for each pitch. I like the conversation I imagine going on between batter and catcher, between catcher and umpire. I like the ridiculous set of signs executed by the third base coach to tell the thirty-million-dollar-a-year batter whether to bunt or hit away. I like the boldness of a double steal, a suicide squeeze. I like the infield fly rule. I like the lightning-like reflexes of a third baseman leaping to snag a line drive headed for the left-field corner. I like a right-fielder with an arm throwing out the runner at home. I like a catcher who blocks the plate, takes the hit and hangs onto the ball. I loathe batters pretending they’ve been hit by a pitch.

My team has always been the Minnesota Twins. They were the soundtrack to my summers back in the sixties, when Bob Allison, Tony Oliva, Rod Carew, and Harmon Killebrew graced the base paths of the old Met Stadium (long since torn down and replaced by the Mall of America). There were some dark years, but the magic returned in 1987, the year they went from Worst to First and won their first World Series with Kirby Puckett, Kent Hrbek, and Frankie “Sweet Music” Viola. The Twins beat the St. Louis Cardinals that year, and to this day I worry that a waitress in St. Louis who wasn’t even born in 1987 might spit in my soup if she finds out I’m from Minnesota. Deep down, I know she doesn’t care. But after all these years, I still do.

My husband is from Baltimore and grew up with the Orioles. Years ago, when we lived in the Des Moines area, I surprised him with a trip to a small baseball museum in western Iowa where Brooks Robinson was visiting and signing autographs. He got almost ten minutes with his childhood hero, one of the greatest third basemen of all time. He asked Robinson if he realized at the time how brilliantly he was playing in the 1970 World Series — the one actually nicknamed “the Brooks Robinson World Series” — and Robinson laughed and said that all he could think about was that he’d made an error the first time he touched the ball in that series. My 40-something husband grinned like a kid all the way home. That autographed 8 x 10 still graces a shelf in his office, right next to pictures of me and our children. I don’t begrudge him that. He still cares.

When people ask me why I care, I tell them my favorite baseball story of all time, which I heard Michael Lewis, author of Moneyball, tell Terry Gross on NPR:

About twenty years ago, Jamie Moyer was a pitcher for the Seattle Mariners, facing a young gun with the Oakland A’s known for his “plate discipline.” He was patient as a hitter. He didn’t strike out a lot. He didn’t flail at pitches outside the strike zone. If the pitcher’s job is to fool the batter — what pitch will it be? The slider? Big slow curveball? Screaming fastball? Up and in? Low and away? — the hitter’s job is to see as many pitches as possible and then, of course, get on base. The pitcher’s goal is to get the batter to swing and miss. But a good hitter can at least make contact, even just foul it off, no matter what the pitch.

In this particular at-bat, the kid had seen six or seven pitches, and had run the count full. Moyer stepped off the mound, walked halfway to the plate, and said something to the batter. After the game, a reporter asked the batter what Moyer had said. The kid laughed. “He said, ‘tell me what you want, and I’ll throw it.’”

I love that story.

I know baseball is no longer “America’s game.” It no longer gleams with the wholesomeness of Mom and apple pie. After all the scandals: the ill-advised gambling by players and the performance-enhancing drugs and the suspicious substances on a pitcher’s glove and the sign-stealing so the batter knows what pitch is coming. After the bench-clearing brawls when a pitcher plunks a batter with a 90-mph fastball because the guy who batted before him hit a home run. After all the players ejected from a game for kicking dirt and making derogatory remarks about an umpire’s parentage…

After all that, I love when a batter who has just struck out gives the pitcher a smile and a thumbs-up: Good pitch. You got me. When the guy nearly to second base on his home run trot sees the center-fielder leap nearly over the fence to catch the ball and deny that home run, and gives the fielder a tip of the hat and a bit of applause as he heads back to the dugout: Great catch. And here a pitcher, having dueled a hitter to a standoff, essentially saying “Nice at-bat. I can’t seem to fool you. I concede this battle. Let’s move the game along.”

It gives me hope for the rest of us. For the conflicts in which we all engage at work and at play and in our relationships. For our political struggles and our disparate world views. The stakes may well be higher, but maybe there’s still room for listening and considering and — maybe — offering a tip of the hat: “You make a good point. I’m going to give you this one. Let’s move the game along.”

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Kimberly Faith Glassman

Kimberly Faith Glassman

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Molecular biologist/bee-keeper who takes long walks and builds things with words.