And now, a few scenes from my 35-year relationship with baseball. (Not pictured: me in a little league uniform; a mountain of plastic cups collected from beneath the bleachers at Rosenblatt Stadium; my mother walking the bases at Wrigley; Carlos Gomez waving at me from centerfield during a meaningless Brewers-Mets game in September 2013).
Among my earliest baseball-related memories is one that doesn’t really involve baseball at all. It’s me, sitting in the backseat of my parents’ car (possibly a Chevy Impala, probably a Chevy Caprice), waiting in some gravel parking lot on the Iowa side of the Missouri, stars out, radio playing, and soon, not soon enough, roughly a half-hour after the Omaha Royals’ game, Fourth of July fireworks blasting over Rosenblatt. I don’t remember the fireworks themselves, but I vaguely remember hearing “Born in the USA,” Ray Charles’ “America the Beautiful,” Lee Greenwood’s grating “God Bless the USA,” coming in clean over the radio, and echoing from the ballpark in the distance, as I drifted in and out of sleep.
It was a highlight of every summer.
The Babe Ruth of Magnolia Street
In Little League, I hit like Mario Mendoza, pitched like Jose Lima, and fielded like Brooks Robinson—more specifically, the statue of Brooks Robinson, outside Camden Yards. Okay, I was a little bit better than that, but in the backyard I was Ruth, I was Nolan Ryan, I was Ozzie Smith. We played so much that we wore dirt patches, signifying the batter’s box and the pitcher’s mound, into our otherwise-green backyards. We played with wiffle balls and softballs and sometimes real baseballs but mostly with tennis balls, which had the benefits of a) not breaking the windows of our parents’ houses; b) springing off the bat, turning our backyards into a Coors Field-style hitters’ haven before the Rockies were a thing. It was awesome.
We played all day and all night, pausing only for bike rides and swimming and basketball (in the spring, when it was cooler, and when our neighbor with a hoop let us play) and football (in the fall and in the winter, as the Huskers executed their annual demolition of the Big 8). The mosquitoes bit us, and we swung at pitches when it was too dark to see, and the rules changed depending on who was hitting (underhand pitches for little brothers, overhand for everyone else). There were ghostrunners (remember ghostrunners?), since we never had anything like the 18 people a real ballgame requires, let alone the four people per team you’d need to occupy three bases and the batter’s box all at once. We played home run derby between games, aiming for towering drives over my friend’s house, debating whether a fly ball sailing next to the house was high enough to be a home run, or whether it was a fair ball at all. (On rare occasions, such arguments led to what you might call voluntary self-ejections, aka taking your ball and going home.)
We played and played and played, knowing that summers always end, and that someday, summers would mean something other than endless backyard baseball.
Wounded in Inaction
I still bear a physical reminder of my Little League days. I was older, maybe seventh grade, and my best friend on the team was at the plate. I sat, in the way kids do, on the top of the back of the bench, cheering on from our covered dugout. I believe the game was close, and maybe there were runners on base, but don’t hold me to that. In any case, my friend hit the ball about as well as I had ever seen, a beautiful cannonball rocketing into left-center field. The plink! of the ball hitting his aluminum bat was so strong, so powerful, so exciting, that I jumped off of my seat, leaping headfirst into the solid-wood dugout roof, bringing tremendous pain to the top of my head. What came next was worse. As I dropped back downward, I slipped on the dirt floor and crashed the back of my head into the metal seat of the bench. I bled intensely, but not so much that I came out of the game. I didn’t get stitches, and I still have the scar, which you can still feel if you ask nicely.
Today, a quarter-century after their last World Series title, and six years after their last playoff appearance, I’m desperate for a sign that the Twins are ready to contend again. (This year’s already looking grim. They’re 8-23, and Fangraphs gives them a 1% chance of making the playoffs, the lowest in the American League.)
But when I was a kid, it felt like the Twins won all the time, I guess because they did. The first World Series I remember watching was in 1987, when the Twins—led by Frank Viola, Kent Hrbek, and Kirby Puckett—defeated the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games, winning all of their home games en route to being one of the worst World Series winners of all-time.
Over the next few years, the team backslid, trading Viola in 1989, finishing dead last in 1990. Then, out of nowhere, the 1991 Twins team roared back, riding a bunch of young pitching (reliable Kevin Tapani, badass Scott Erickson), rookie sensation (and all-time great baseball name) Chuck Knoblauch, and of course, Kirby Puckett all the way to the World Series. And what a Series! You don’t need me to recap every moment, but I remember watching fans twirl their Homer Hankies at the Metrodome, the crowd going absolutely bananas, as the teams battled for every run, every hit, every out. Every pitch felt like it was the bottom of the ninth with two outs. It’s like they knew they weren’t going to score a ton of runs, so every moment mattered. And of course it all went down to the seventh game, tenth inning, with a single run making all the difference.
I sometimes wonder if baseball will ever be that exciting again, and if I am spending a life of fandom chasing that high.
Three years later, the World Series was canceled by a strike. And the Twins didn’t go back to the playoffs for ten years.
What a Wonderful World Series
During the prime of my childhood, from ‘86 to ‘93, the World Series was beyond compelling year after year. (Meanwhile, the Super Bowl felt like an annual celebration of the NFC’s ability to blow out a hapless AFC champion.)
Check this out:
1986: Buckner Ball, Miracle Mets. I don’t remember the Series, but those late-’80s Mets exuded cool in a way no team has since. A guy named Doc and a guy named Strawberry. Doesn’t get any cooler than that.
1987: Win Twins!
1988: Kirk Gibson homer, Scully on the call.
1989: Earthquake! Also: peak Bash Brothers.
1990: Kind of a yawn, though I remember LOVING Jose Rijo as a kid for some reason.
1991: Win Twins! Arguably the best Series of all-time, preceded by arguably the best NLCS of all-time.
1992: I remember this as a yawn, too, but I just looked it up and a) four of the six games were decided by one run; b) the final game went 11 innings before the Jays claimed Canada’s first World Series title. So pretty solid.
1993: Joe Carter walk-off homer to clinch series.
Then came the strike and the run of Yankees series, and I started to tune out a bit. But more about that later.
House of Cards
I still remember my first pack: 1988 Donruss, a truly hideous collection of cards, with their sky blue frame interrupted by what looked like four red pipes. The photography was generic, too—shots of, say, an unsmiling Tom Glavine, looking like someone had just asked him “Quick, name your favorite Fellini movie.” But I loved them all the same.
My collection quickly grew. Cards were cheap then, and I had a mailman, the world’s greatest, who knew I loved cards and would bring me small cases of his reject cards, which were still fascinating to a 7-year-old in thrall to these tiny pieces of cardboard. I loved them. I loved the smell of a fresh pack. I loved the anticipation. I loved deciphering the stats and the player bios on the back.* (“What does it mean when the numbers are bold and italic?” “What’s ‘HOF’ mean?”) It felt like discovering a map to a grownup world, one I could enter if I just spent the time figuring out the meaning of the signs.
The next year, Upper Deck came out, introducing the first-ever so-called premium card, and the era of Big Baseball Card was upon us. What was a fun (if kind of junky) hobby became something more like business, since (as I remember) UD cards cost two or three times as much as my preferred Donruss packs. The cool kids at my school (who were also, frankly, the wealthier kids) were all about them, and who could blame them? The cards were glossy as hell. The photos were by Walter Iooss, Jr., who also shot the Swimsuit Issue, thus rocketing him to the top of my childhood list of role models. They had holograms. In a world of newsprint, they were Vogue. In a world of three-camera sitcoms, they were The Sopranos. You get the idea.
I still collected, and I still traded, including with a friend’s dad, which in retrospect seems kind of sketchy. I painstakingly organized cards in UV-protected sleeves, which were then put inside three-ring binders, which were then placed horizontally (never vertically, didn’t want to put pressure on the edges of the cards) onto shelves, which were then kept in a darkened room to ensure that sunlight didn’t damage the cards. It was fun at the time, but in retrospect seems like a fundamental misunderstanding of fandom and of life. Baseball—like music, like people, like anything else—isn’t meant to be studied, to be catalogued, put into a case and preserved. It’s meant to be played. It’s meant to be lived.