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Watching Baseball with Pops:

Baseball season is now just underway, at our local high schools and in the major leagues, and so the Mirror offers this personal memoir – a paean to the Grand Old Game – from one of our staff writers.

The sport of baseball – the great American pastime – has taken much criticism in recent years on the grounds that it is too slow to be entertaining and exciting.  The common and proper rejoinder from fans of the sport is that those who believe baseball is too slow simply do not understand the game. The unfortunate fact of the matter is that baseball just does not play well on television, the medium on which most of us now watch sports.  Baseball is best viewed in person in a ballpark where one can see the whole field.  Failing that, a radio broadcast with a knowledgeable and engaging announcer – while one is working in the garden or washing the car – is more suited to baseball than is television, especially if the listener has already watched several games at the ballpark and can at least envision the whole field.

When I was a boy growing up in Los Angeles in the 1950s, before the Dodgers and the Giants moved to the West Coast, we had two minor league baseball teams in town in the Pacific Coast League – the Hollywood Stars who played at Gilmore Field near the Farmer’s Market at Third and Fairfax on the south edge of Hollywood, and the Los Angeles Angels who played at Wrigley Field at 42nd Place and Avalon Boulevard in the South Central part of the city.  Given the respective neighborhoods, the Stars played mostly night games and the Angels played day games.

My father took me to some of the Stars games – he worked during the day.  But every summer during that time, my retired grandfather, Pops, came to visit for a month or two from Philadelphia, where he had been a huge baseball fan of Connie Mack’s Athletics team before the big sell-off, and he took me to a great many day games at Wrigley Field.

Pops did not drive, so we took the streetcar to Wrigley – the “P” car into town on Pico Boulevard and then a transfer to the “V” car down Vermont Avenue to the ballpark.

Wrigley was an intimate minor league park with ivy on the outfield walls like the team’s parent club in Chicago.  Unlike today’s major league ballparks, a spectator was close to the field, and there was nothing of the enormous void between the stands and the diamond that characterizes current big league stadiums.  And the games were played in daylight, as baseball was meant to be played.

It was at this Wrigley Field that I learned to watch baseball at Pops’ side.  He taught me to watch the whole field.  Are the outfielders shaded to left or right?  Is the first baseman covering the bag or playing off the bag for the grounder to the right side?  Is the infield playing up or deep?  What is the right pitching count for a hit and run?  Is this the right situation for a “Texas Leaguer” to the shallow outfield or a long ball?  Bunt or hit away?  With a man on first, will the shortstop or the second baseman rush to cover second when the ball is hit?  When should the manager pull the pitcher?

And he taught me how to score the game in my program.

Yes, I learned how to watch baseball at Pops’ side –- to consider every player’s options before the ball went into play.  That is what makes baseball exciting.  Without the knowledgeable anticipation, the game does appear to be slow.  But with it, the game is exciting and engrossing.

Television cannot show the whole field – for the most part, it focuses only on the pitcher and the batter, which is really only a small part of the game, even a small part of each baseball moment.  And the radar gun reading the speed of the pitch actually detracts from the drama – the anticipation of what will happen next.

Then too, when it comes to the perceived “slowness” of baseball, it may have to do with a shift – unfortunate, in my opinion – in American culture and sensibilities.  Baseball, in its way, represents a simpler America.  In an ever changing world, baseball is a connection with an older way of life in which sports, at least (boxing notwithstanding), were a refuge from violence rather than a celebration of it – before professional football’s sack dances and end zone celebrations and before full contact pro basketball took center stage. 

In spite of the abominations of the designated hitter, interleague play and an endless postseason with wild card teams, baseball has remained – for the most part – a permanent and enduring fixture of that American life.

Change is often good, but it is also good to have some steady foothold on the past, and baseball as I learned it from Pops has always been such a foothold for me.

I am reminded of George Carlin’s routine on the difference between baseball and football, in which he compares the fact that football is played on a gridiron of exact dimensions while baseball is played in a park where the foul lines seem to stretch to infinity, or at least to varying distances; football players wear helmets while baseball players wear caps; football games last exactly 60 minutes of playing time while baseball games can go on forever; baseball players have their ups while football teams have downs; baseball has the seventh inning stretch while football has the two-minute warning; and so on.  And there, to my mind, lies the true and appealing beauty of baseball.

Pops was a strange bird in some ways: he ate rice as though it were cereal, in a bowl with milk and sugar; he ate pizza with a knife and fork; and he told my sister never to trust any boy named “Ed” long before she came to know that Pops’ given name was Ed.

But he sure knew baseball.

Pops taught me the infield fly rule and the manager’s double switch and how to read the umpire’s strike zone and when the go-ahead run was at the plate and the magic of stealing home.  And I am certainly grateful for those experiences and those memories.

These are the things – simple though they may be – that can bind a culture and a country together, a shared experience for all citizens.  The Great American Pastime is all about watching the whole field, as Pops would say.

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