Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Ambiance of Summer

Although I haven’t written much about them since my January 8 post, I’m a huge, lifelong Atlanta Braves fan. I was a fan in 1977 when they lost 101 games. I was a fan in 1988 when they lost 106 games. I damn sure was a fan when they won 14 consecutive division championships. A record.

The beauty of baseball is that it is in a sense timeless. A game could theoretically never end. There is no sudden death in a traditional game of ball. While timeless it is also seamless. The present connects very comfortably with the past. Despite various changes that are mostly meaningless to non-baseball fans, the
1919 Chicago White Sox can be compared with the Big Red Machine. The Braves of 1914 are comparable to the Braves of 1995 on many levels even though the way the game is played is very different, even the ball is very different.

The instinctive, divisive love or hate of the
New York Yankees was earned by that team with its success through time. Like them or not, they are by far the most successful team in winning championships ever in baseball history, through time. The love and hate is in the Now but the reason for it extends backwards beyond you.

When you talk baseball with another fan you naturally drift around in time. Skipping freely from one humorous story or statistical fact or great play to another, often hop-scotching through decades of time. A magnificent catch 50 years ago can be put side-by-side with a magnificent catch this Saturday afternoon. The double-play combination of
Tinkers to Evers to Chance still measures up today. Timely homeruns are comparable no matter what baseball era you choose. Babe Ruth allegedly pointing his bat to the fence before hitting a home run can be placed side-by-side (if it happened that is) with Hank Aaron’s 715th homer. Pitchers with great curveballs are universally connected in conversation because a curveball is still a curveball.

Then there’s another sense of time in baseball. The passage of time during a single season of ball. I differ from many fans in that the season no longer interests me so much at spring training or in April and May. I’m more of an August man. I follow the Braves every day during the season but let me see what’s cooking in August and then I’ll start checking out the various teams and players more carefully.

During the course of a given season you tend to naturally drift around in time when approaching baseball as an aesthetic experience. Your conversation drifts off to routine daily matters, family occurrences, mundane wonders of your private life shared with family and friends. Meanwhile baseball continues on and on through the summer, always in the background. The game fits comfortably into the pace of life, as you choose.

In fact, a game of ball (while exciting to watch) slows down the hectic life we all live so that the threads of conversation get intermingled with the game itself. For me in August life becomes inseparable with the daily happenings of your team of choice. It’s an extension of who you are…your work, your family, your friendships, your chores, your need to watch or listen to a game play out in the background as you attend to other matters.

But, of course, you always stop whatever you’re doing when something significant is happening in the game in the background. You need a strike out or a ground ball. You need that clutch 2 out hit to tie the game or possibly take the lead. Background becomes foreground.

In those moments, if you’re really tuned in to it, the game is all there is.

All this longevity and basic connectivity to our mundane lives over the course of a season gives baseball a unique feel. It is not as fleeting or fragmented as a great moment in football or basketball. The moment still exists. It is in the ambiance of time rather than space that true baseball resides.

I am 19 or 20 and reading a paperback of
Stephen King’s most recent novel, The Stand. In the background I am listening to the Atlanta Braves games on the radio. I am fascinated with the many well developed characters of King’s novel. Ernie Johnson is doing the play-by-play. The Braves are probably losing. Someone like Rick Matula is probably pitching, if he hasn’t already been knocked out of the game.

I am a child, yelling bright and loud at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium as the Braves turn a very complex triple play in the first inning of a game they
will lose to the Chicago Cubs 2-1. (Read the game log of the first inning triple play at the link.) It is 1969. The Braves will win the Western Division title later that season. My mother is sitting next to me and gives me a great big hug. She is a fan and, like me, has never seen a triple play. I am wearing a Braves little league uniform and carrying my glove at the stadium. I am so happy.

I am at
the fifth game of the 1991 NLCS with my boss. I am the marketing manager for an Atlanta-based national financial software developer. My boss is a huge baseball fan. Someone who has met Roger Maris, someone who really enjoys seeing the Braves play so well. They lose that game. We end up driving over a steep curb in my boss’ luxury Lexus after the game to avoid traffic congestion. I am dejected while he is upbeat. “Come on Keith, we can win two in a row in Pittsburgh.” I doubt it. But we did it to win the National League Championship.

Mark Wohlers gets Carlos Baerga to fly out to Marquis Grissom and Tom Glavine wins the sixth game of the 1995 World Series. The Atlanta Braves are World Champions. Big thanks to David Justice. My daughter is only a few months old. I never thought I’d see it happen. Yet, it is somehow not as much fun as losing the Series was to Minnesota in 1991.

That
Miracle Season was a phenomenon. It had a fun, karmic aura encompassing the entire metropolitan area of Atlanta. I was living and working in Atlanta. It was sensational to be a part of it. Jennifer and I got to see Glavine pitch and win the fifth game of the 1991 Series. He really didn't pitch that well that night but the Braves bats were awesome. The atmosphere was so exciting, youthful and pure.

It reminds me of my childhood, of Stephen King, of Atlanta with my boss and myself still newly married. All that is connected not in space but in time to baseball.

When the
katydids first start, just as the lightning bugs begin to rise plentifully from my front yard at twilight, baseball is just getting interesting. This year the Braves haven’t shown much offense but their pitching is really excellent for the most part. You can win big games with nothing but pitching. The Braves are still a long way behind the Phillies right now. But, I love to watch a well-pitched game by Jair Jurrjens or Dereck Lowe or this new kid Hanson. (For the first time in high definition this year.) I like the Braves as a team, their defense is excellent, I just wish they would hit more for Bobby Cox.

Part of being a baseball fan is rooting for your favorite players. I love rooting for young pitchers before they are great. I pulled for
Buzz Capra but he got injured. I pulled for Pascual Perez but he didn’t really have much of a work ethic. I pulled for Tom Glavine (who had a terrific work ethic) but he was traded to the Damn Mets. Jesus that was tough.

Today I root for
Brian McCann and Jurrjens. I could root for Hanson because he's new and inexperienced but so talented. Hell, I already am rooting for him.

And I root for the one-season wonders with the Rome Braves. I follow the Rome team as closely if not closer than the Atlanta team these days. Rome, like Atlanta, has no hitting this year but they have two interesting pitchers.
Zeke Spruill started the South Atlantic League All-Star game this year. In 106 innings pitched he’s only walked 21 batters. He usually doesn’t hurt himself. J.J. Hoover is the other pitcher to watch in Rome this year. He started the season as a middle reliever but has come on strong as a starter with an awesome 101 strikeouts to a mere 14 walks in 92 innings. 6 to 1 strike-out to walk ratio. Worth watching.

Minor League Baseball is great fun. I love to see the future stars in play within the context of human, steriod-less athleticism. I saw
Martin Prado play in Rome in 2004. He’s having a great season in 2009 with Atlanta.

The
2003 Rome team was loaded with talent and won the League Championship during its very first year in Rome. That was a lot of fun to participate in. I’d rank it up there with several other great seasons of fun baseball I've known. Certainly, the highlight of my minor league fandom.

I took my mother in 2003 to watch
Kyle Davies pitch on that Rome team. Davies was latter good enough to offer in trade. I also saw Blaine Boyer, Anthony Lerew, and Dan Meyer (later traded for Tim Hudson) in the 2003 season.

Brain McCann and Jeff Francoeur were the big bats on that team. Jennifer and I saw Francoeur hit his first home run for Rome on a bright chilly and clear early April night in 2003. A solid drive deep over the left field fence. It was as special in a way several homer runs I’ve seen in my lifetime are special.

Thusly is baseball forever comparable. Which is why strikes and steroid abuse are so wrong. They disrupt the fundamental, comparable nature of the game.

So, here we are approaching another August. Rome doesn’t have much of team this year other than the couple of pitchers I mentioned.
Atlanta is a long-shot, but might have a solid shot at the Damn wild card. Those pitchers need early leads to work with. If the Braves get their starting pitchers a one or two run lead by the fourth inning, the pitching’s solid enough to carry them a long way.

Too early to tell. And, like I said, Philly is way out in front as of today. But, the 1914 Boston Braves won 60 of their last 73 games. They went 60-13. Think about that. On June 8, 1914, they were 13.5 games out of first place. But
they ended up sweeping the Philadelphia Athletics in the World Series - the first Series sweep in history. They were an unstoppable race horse.

As of today, Atlanta is 8 back in the loss column. We play the Phillies 9 more times this season.

So there’s hope.

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