A letter to baseball, from a fan who has strayed from his first love.
Sorry I’ve strayed. That I’ve changed and you haven’t. How I felt compelled to find something faster and more exciting. But I miss you and our childhood romance, along with all those days we spent together in the park. And I think we should give this another try.
I’m not sure when I fell out of love. Maybe it was my boyhood idol breaking bad (Pete Rose). Maybe it was the ease in which I was seduced by the fraudulent return of the national pastime, when the Steroid Era made you sexier than ever. Or maybe it was the dull vibe in our new home we share in Arizona, a stadium devoid of passion and intimacy.
But something changed last week. Walking through the Baseball Hall of Fame Tour at Salt River Fields, I toured five different wings of a traveling museum. The first featured the trading card collection of Diamondbacks Managing General Partner Ken Kendrick, the king of cardboard baseball.
I discovered he owns the same Mickey Mantle card that I do. Except his is in mint condition and mine spent 10 years in bicycle spokes. I realized anyone who cherishes baseball cards that much must be in this for the love of the game, and not just the value of his franchise.
I gazed at Jackie Robinson’s baseball cap from the 1955 World Series. The iconic star lost the hat during an on-field celebration, and it was scooped up by a fan who ran onto the field. The trespasser did some research, discovered Robinson was the only player from the Brooklyn Dodgers who lost his hat during the festivities, and with some degree of shame, promptly wrote him a letter. He offered to send the hat back to its rightful owner.
Robinson happily declined, telling the fan to keep it for his own collection.
I gazed at Harry Caray’s glasses, possibly the most recognizable eyewear since Ben Franklin’s spectacles. I marveled at the mitt Willie Mays used during his over-the-shoulder catch in the World Series – how badly it pales to the size of outfield gloves in the 21st century, and how that only enhances one of the greatest defensive plays in history. I shook my head at the cleats Rose wore while passing Ty Cobb as all-time Hit King on a Sept. 11, a date that now lives in infamy for other reasons.
Nothing was more jaw-dropping than size of Honus Wagner’s bat, especially the massive handle. It must’ve been akin to swinging a maple tree. A curator from the Hall of Fame promptly took me to a photo of Wagner, pointing out his massive hands.
They were so big that Wagner would often scoop up clumps of dirt while fielding ground balls. According to one biographer, that dirt would accompany his throws to first base like “the tail of a comet.”
And it got me thinking.
The NFL has been America’s favorite sport since 1985. The NBA is a global empire, fast becoming the second-favorite sport on the planet. Both professions have changed dramatically in the last 3-4 decades, from quality of athlete to style of play.
You have pretty much stayed the same for 114 years. Your pitchers throw harder, and today’s benchmark 100-mile per hour fastball will reach its target 4½ feet ahead of a pitch clocked at 92 mph. That’s the new frontier. Four-and-a-half feet. That’s why your hitters dawdle like never before.
But after all these years, you’re still you, and your sturdy generational sameness creates great memories, movies and awesome museums.
In one wing of the exhibit, visitors are encouraged to post sticky notes that describe their favorite fan experiences, including the ones that made them laugh. There weren’t many submissions in the latter category, and that’s been part of our problem. But one fan recalled, “Vlad Guerrero’s broken bat hitting Tommy Lasorda in the 2001 All-Star Game,” which was slapstick at its finest. I could’ve posted a thousand notes, but chose this letter instead.
Near tour’s end, I put on a pair of virtual reality goggles and relived the 2016 World Series from a mind-blowing perspective. This included a simulated ride atop an open-air bus during the Cubs’ victory parade in Chicago, rolling past millions of fans that were cheering me and their own liberation.
I realized that you’ve been pretty good to me over the years. I’ve celebrated a World Series championship with my boyhood team and my current team of choice. One waited 108 years. The other needed only four. Both were incredible experiences, the stuff that makes any relationship worth saving.
I’m not saying that old fires can rage again. You need to lighten up, have more fun and spend less time getting ready. But I need to not harp on your flaws and remember what makes you – and us – so beautiful.
Reach Bickley at [email protected] or 602-444-8253. Follow him on twitter.com/dan.bickley. Listen to “Bickley and Marotta” weekdays from 12-2 p.m. on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM.