I gave a lot of myself to baseball back in the day. Or maybe, more accurately, baseball extracted a lot from me. I lost my two front teeth to baseball. I still have a scar above my left eye from the swing of a wayward bat swung by one of my team mates; and of course various scars and scratches remain from those youthful battles with my friends on the sandlot. I stopped playing baseball when I entered high school. I chose track instead. When I tried to return to baseball briefly in college, I suffered from what became known as Steve Sax syndrome(long before Sax ever stepped on the field professionally), or more accurately Steve Blass disease as I was a pitcher. I couldn’t accurately throw a baseball to save my life. So I retired from playing the game.
I grew up playing sandlot baseball. There were always fights among us kids. I am still friends with many of them. One friend and I always seemed to get into a fight(there were no umpires). Recently we got together and recalled our days on the sandlot and the fights we had. We laughed until we cried. Why? Because we had learned how much more important our friendship was than whatever it was we were fighting about.
There was a lesson, though, in what we were fighting about. Because there were no umpires we had to individually honor the rules of the game. Usually the fights were about some disputed rule: was a player safe or out? Was the pitch a ball or a strike? Was the ball fair or foul? Sometimes we had to make up rules to fit our particular situation. Like the rule that said if you hit the house the sandlot was next to you were out. The owner of the house was a Panamanian immigrant. He would come outside to watch us play and voice his displeasure if we hit his house, which had aluminum siding. His little five-year old daughter would sit on the fence and plead, “please don’t hit my house, okay.” The sound of the ball hitting his house could be heard for blocks. But the tall, lanky Panamanian never called the cops, or tried to make us stop playing. A sense of fairness made us make up a rule that applied to all of us kids equally.
I think major league baseball players could learn something about fairness from our ancient sandlot games. For the game of baseball to be fun, my friends and I learned that if we obeyed the rules and didn’t cheat the fewer fights we had and the more we enjoyed the games. For twelve-year old kids, the game was serious. During the summers we played from sunup to sundown. Our parents had rules, too. We had better be home by the time the street lamps came on. If we broke that rule we were suspended from playing for a while.
Major league baseball has the same set of rules by which we played. The cardinal rule for our sandlot games and Major League Baseball is that you don’t cheat. You have to play by the rules. Like us kids, Major League Baseball has had to make up special rules. The object of the game is to score more runs than the opposing team. While strategy is important having talented athletes is fundamental. Every team strives to have the best hitters, especially the best home run hitter. To be fair when we chose teams in sandlot baseball the two captains flipped a coin to see who would choose first. Everybody wanted big Joe Ash on their team. Joe could hit the ball two blocks, which was equivalent to hitting the ball out of the park. Likewise, major league teams strive to obtain the biggest and strongest players they can.
As players got bigger and stronger through better nutrition, exercise, and practice; and the use of video technology improved everything from a batter’s swing to a pitcher’s delivery, no team had much of a competitive edge over the other(the Chicago Cubs notwithstanding). To gain competitive advantage, some players realized that they could enhance their playing ability if they added certain drugs to their diet. Eventually, teams complained that this was not fair. In addition, some of these substances were found to be harmful to a player’s health. A rule was made that players couldn’t take what has become to be known as performance enhancing drugs, or PEDs. The rule was ignored for years. So players began to take matters into their own hands.
Baseball is a subtle game. Instead of outright fights for cheating as we had in our sandlot games, pitchers began to throw at players who were known users of PEDs(read cheaters). Sometimes brawls would result from pitchers deliberately throwing at batters(actually another form of cheating). Finally, when the integrity of the game was threatened to the extent of affecting the owners’ pocket books and the U.S. congress got involved, the crackdown began.
As an old man now reflecting on those sandlot games of over fifty years ago, I am less critical of the game and players than some because I am reminded of how we played the game as kids. We had to fight each other to make sure that none of us got away with cheating. In my judgement, that’s the way it should’ve been and would that it could be the same in professional sports. But too often the players themselves are complicit in covering up acts of cheating. No one wants to rat out their fellow players. In addition, two-hundred-pound-plus grown men can’t start fights to prevent cheating(professional hockey notwithstanding). Though I must admit that old fashion brawls prevent pitchers from throwing at batters.
I wonder how us kids would have handled Joe Ashe, our sandlot home run king, if he had been taking PEDs. I’m not proud of it today, but back then I was an aggressive kid. I started most of the fights. I probably would have chased Joe down. . .and well you know. Now some kids think cheating is okay. They think major league baseball is being too hard on recent players caught cheating. I hope they are in the minority. For me, baseball is still about kids having fun. I don’t think I’ve missed a Little League World Series since they began airing on television. And I hope we never see the day when cheating spreads from Major League Baseball to Little League Baseball. If we do. . .well then you know we might just have to introduce sandlot fights to maintain the integrity of the game.
To God Be The Glory Forever and Ever
Categories: God and the Universe