Baseball. The Great American Pastime. It was a sport that I loved as a kid. There was never anything quite like putting a glove on your hand or running your thumb over the stitching of the ball or slinging the sucker across the field to one of your teammates or feeling (and hearing) the crack of the bat as you watched the ball soar through the air.
Most afternoons and evenings during summers you could find us gathered anywhere there was enough space to play – and sometimes even in places where there wasn’t. You could find us with a collection of bats and baseballs, running around bases made from cardboard, ball gloves, corners of buildings, or anything else that we could lay hands on that would do the job. We would be shouting and cheering at friends right up until the sky grew too dark to see, and then we would come home hot, tired, sweaty, and sunburned but happy. We never really cared who won or lost, not really, despite the arguments that sometimes broke out to the contrary. We just loved being out in the warm air playing a game we all cared about.
It was always all guts and glory then, too. We rarely played the game smart, never a thought given to strategy or when it was better to bunt or sacrifice for the sake of scoring another run or throwing the ball to the best position to cut off a runner. It was always about who could hit the ball the farthest, who could drive it out of reach. There was a wealth of pride and satisfaction to be found when the outfielders would back way up when it was _your_ turn to bat. Then, standing there over the plate, waiting for the pitch that you knew could be faster, harder, and more difficult to hit but that was inevitably slower just so that it _could_ be hit, knowing that it was this way for everyone because it was as much fit to _have_ the ball hit into play as it was to _be_ the one hitting it into play; swinging at the ball as hard and fast as possible, trying to crush it even beyond the reach of where the outfielders now stood in their attempt to keep that crusher from getting away, sometimes missing as a result of swinging for the figurative cheap seats but rarely ever really caring because, oh, it was so fun and glorious to pound one away. It was one of the things we lived for every summer.
We took out our fair share of windows, of course – me more than most. It’s inevitable that, when a group of boys (and a couple of girls) get together with the toys of their chosen pastime, something _will_ get broken. We were fortunate, at least, that it wasn’t each other that we broke, hard we played. We bounced baseballs off concrete walls, parked cars, covered pavilions, sidewalks, and anything else unfortunate enough to be nearby. We were always penitent, of course – at least until we were sure no one had noticed. Broken windows were always noticed.
We knew all the professional teams back then, who the good players were, who was getting traded, who the new expansion teams were. I had my favorite team – the Toronto Blue Jays – and I had all my favorite players and knew their positions and batting lineups. They won back-to-back World Series titles, and I couldn’t have been prouder.
Then baseball fell from glory. Baseball went on strike. The 1994 World Series was cancelled.
At first I was confused. I didn’t follow the news much back then – what 13-year-old does? – and the Internet wasn’t the resource that it is now, so it took me some time to put the pieces together. Then I was disappointed and hurt. The players had gone on strike. Their complaint was that they weren’t getting paid enough, that they wanted boosts to their salaries. Even at 13 this fact struck me as being somehow morally wrong. After all, here were grown men who were getting paid more money in a year than I would ever see in a lifetime to _play a game_ who were complaining about the sizes of their paychecks. That was the moment for me that baseball lost its beauty and majesty. The players themselves had sullied the game, ruining it for and, for that season at least, for most of my friends, as well. Most of them found their way back to the game. I never did. I still played the game during summers – no strike could take that away from me – but I never again enjoyed just sitting down and watching a game on TV for the sake of it. I lost my love of the game.
These days the state of the game is in even sadder shape. There are no true giants of baseball left, no Babe Ruths or Hank Aarons, no Mickey Mantles or Lou Gehrigs. The players still strike, and every great athlete’s ability has a shadow cast over it because chances are good that they’ve boosted themselves up by drug enhancements. True talent is hard to find anymore. Everyone is too busy now trying to make more money or get into the Hall of Fame. And while there are still men who play for love of the game, baseball itself has lost that innocent beauty that so enraptured a young boy growing up in the backwoods of West Virginia. Baseball fell from glory.
Incidentally, I still have a commemorative baseball from the 1994 World Series that my aunt gave me for Christmas that year, though it’s probably still packed in a box somewhere. It reminds me of a time when baseball was innocent, at least to me. Eventually I’ll pull it back out and put it back up on the shelf and remember a time when things were simpler and a game was still just a game.