My earliest memory of baseball is of my dad and I sitting out on the screened in porch… a hot summer night… listening to the Twins on the radio. The Twins were terrible but I had no idea. I listened to my dad and uncle talk about players named Puckett and Hrbek but for some reason I told them my favorite player was Gary Ward. Why? I had his baseball card. I later came to claim Hrbek as my favorite – which is why I played 1st base all through high school. I remember the Twins winning the World Series in 1987 and 1991 – I may even have an old Wheaties box somewhere as proof. The Minnesota Twins will forever be my team win or lose (lately it’s mostly lose.) I’ve begun the process of indoctrinating my kids into the baseball experience. When we lived in St. Paul I took them to a number of games – they love it even if they don’t quite get what’s going on. This past spring when a colleague and I went up for a quick game in May I took a picture and texted it to my wife. I received a picture text back of my eight year old son in tears – upset that school had gotten in the way of a baseball game.
One of my favorite baseball memories has nothing to do with the Twins. It was the 1988 World Series. I was babysitting the neighbor kids, who were in bed, and I was watching the end of game one. It was the Dodgers vs. the A’s and the A’s took a one run lead into the bottom of the 9th. With one runner on and two outs, Tommy Lasorda went to his bench – Kirk Gibson, who hadn’t played because of injuries to both legs, stepped up to the plate to face closer Dennis Eckersly. What transpired is the stuff of legend – something that really should only be experienced through the words of Vince Scully who called the game that night. The beauty of baseball is that it is an expression of our humanity. It is a democratic game – everyone hits and everyone fields (at least in the NL anyway.) It’s a game where ordinary people perform the extra ordinary. It’s a game where the heroic is still possible, where victory suddenly bursts forth from the certainty of defeat, and where defeat can be clutched from the jaws of what seemed like certain victory. It’s a game where the key to success if to learn to deal with failure, where players who fail 2 out of 3 times usually end up in the hall of fame.
I like to tell the story about the softball game in which my wife Tamara had her Kirk Gibson moment. We used to play co-ed slow pitch softball and truth be told (I’m sure she would agree) she really wasn’t the greatest player. She worked hard, played hard, ran hard, and tried hard… but she’s more of an artist, not an athlete. It was the final game of the season and we were up by one run in the bottom of the last inning. My wife was playing rover in between me and the center fielder. There were two outs with runners on 2nd and 3rd and a big bruiser of a slugger up to bat. As the ball left the bat everything moved in slow motion. He hit it hard, a line drive, right at Tamara. The center fielder and I just stood and watched – there was no way either of us could get to it. Tamara closed her eyes, stuck up her glove, and whoomp – she caught it. Game over. The place erupted – the crowd cheered, the team celebrated, and Tamara cried – tears of joy of course. Every now and again, usually after watching an Olympic event of some kind, she’ll say something about wishing that she could experience the thrill of athletic victory. I always have to remind her of that night on the softball field – to which she smiles and says “Oh that doesn’t count.” Ordinary people doing heroic things. That’s the beauty of baseball (and every so often slow pitched softball.)
(The above clip is of the entire bottom half of the 9th inning, which is the only way to fully experience the mythic nature of Gibson’s home run.)