Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Beauty of Baseball – a Year Without Pennant Races Still Gives Reasons to Listen

I was looking at the baseball standings this morning--as I do every morning throughout the season--and a lamenting the fact that there are no pennant races to speak of with two-and-a-half weeks left until the end of the season. Oh sure, someone might make a late run--less likely, I suppose since the Mets aren't leading a division--but it certainly looks as if the division winners will be the Yankees, Tigers, Angels, Phillies, Cardinals and Dodgers with the Red Sox and Rockies as the wild cards.

That's a shame, because there is nothing quite like the day-to-day suspense of the last couple of weeks of a real pennant race, emotions sliding up and down the scale on an almost inning-by-inning basis. One of my most vivid baseball memories is being in Boston in 1978 on a vacation in mid-September while the Yankees and Red Sox were staging their historic race that culminated in the "Bucky bleeping Dent," game on my mother's birthday that October.

I was a year out of college and was the cops and courts reporter in Prince George's County, Maryland for The Post. I took a few days off to visit two friends who were in law school and business school in Boston. Every night we watched the Red Sox and found a radio to pick up the Yankees on the radio. On a Sunday afternoon we went sightseeing, driving up to see Salem and Gloucester. We listened to both games on the radio--I'm not exactly sure how we got the Yankees signal in the afternoon, but we did--switching back and forth constantly. My friends were both Red Sox fans. Being a Mets fan, I was just a spectator, but loved every second of it.

I also remember devouring the Boston papers every morning. There wasn't an aspect of the race that wasn't covered in great detail. When I got back to Washington I walked into George Solomon's office. He was the sports editor and I was still doing a lot of work for sports even though I was on the Metro staff. "You know what George," I said, still exhilarated by the week in Boston. "You just can't be a real sports town without a baseball team."

"Get out," Solomon said and went back to editing the seven "Skins prepare for Lions," stories the paper was running the next day.

I love college basketball, I love golf and I love football--preferably the college game. I'm a huge hockey fan and I still really like to watch tennis although covering it would make me nuts because the people involved in the sport--especially those who run it--are so completely clueless. As an old swimmer I enjoy watching swimming on almost any level and I can still get chills watching the Olympics on those rare moments when NBC isn't showing figure skating or gymnastics.

But there's nothing like baseball for me. My ex-wife once commented in a pejorative way that baseball was, "ubiquitous." That's exactly what I love about it. Tonight, I will be in my car driving back from New York. I do not have satellite radio simply because I'm too lazy to get around to having it put in my car. The other reason is that I know when I'm driving at night I can pick up the Mets, the Yankees, the Phillies, the Red Sox, the Orioles and, most nights, the White Sox on my radio if I'm anywhere on the east coast. If I venture into the midwest I can get the Pirates, the Indians, the Cardinals (who can sometimes be found on the east coast) the Tigers and the Cubs. Someone is always on.

And, even without serious pennant races, there's always good reason to listen. Two weekends ago, when I was in Ohio for the Navy-Ohio State game I listened to the Indians and Twins for a little while on Friday and for a long time on Saturday. My old friend Tom Hamilton does the Indians play-by-play and what was remarkable was that if you closed your eyes and just listened (not a great idea while driving) you'd have thought the Indians and Twins circa 2009 were the Yankees and Red Sox circa 1978. Tom was enthusiastic about the game itself, kept explaining why it was so important to the Twins and talked about the young players the Indians had in their lineup and what they hoped to see from them in 2010.

That's the other thing about baseball: even when the Indians are 18 games under .500, even when the Mets have collapsed, there is always the hope of spring training the next year. I know that's true of other sports but does anything feel quite like spring training. If you live, as most of us do, in a place where there is snow on the ground in February or at the very least it's damn cold, the site of baseball players pitching and catching in Florida and Arizona always makes us feel good. Our team is undefeated and warm weather can't be that far away if spring training has started.

Tonight I'll switch back and forth as I head down the New Jersey Turnpike. I'll listen to the Yankees for a while so that John Sterling can explain to me why A-Rod is really a good guy if you know him and so my old friend Suzyn Waldman can use the phrase, "our old friend," about 100 times. I'll switch over to the Mets and listen to Howie Rose subtly pick apart the team he and I both grew up loving and then I'll pick up the Phillies and the Orioles as I get closer to Washington. The trip--once I get out of Manhattan--will take about four hours. It won't feel nearly that long.

As I write this, Ernie Harwell has been diagnosed with cancer at the age of 92. No one ever broadcast baseball better than Ernie Harwell did--first with the Orioles long, long ago and then for years with the Tigers. Harwell always had that southern lilt to his voice and he knew exactly when to raise it and when not to. Unlike a lot of today's broadcasters he didn't scream about an RBI single in the first as if it was Kirk Gibson's home run in the '88 World Series.

He is also one of the nicest and most generous men I've ever met. When the Tigers management had the ridiculous notion that firing him after the 1991 season might be a good idea, Harwell never ripped the franchise publicly, even though he was hurt. It didn't take long--less than a season--for the Tigers to realize they'd made a mistake. That's no knock on Bob Rathbun and Rick Rizzs, his successors who were (and are) very solid baseball broadcasters. But there is only one Ernie Harwell and, fortunately, Tom Monaghan figured that out before the 1992 season was over.

I miss listening to Ernie. I still LOVE getting the chance to hear Vin Scully and I really miss Bob Murphy, who I grew up with as a Mets fan. Murph retired in, I think 2002, after doing Mets games for 40 years. On the night of his last broadcast I was giving a speech on the eastern shore of Maryland. When I was finished, I explained to the guy running the dinner that, while I'd like to stay and mingle, I HAD to get to my car and get home.

I was telling the truth--sort of. I had to get to my car so I could flip on WFAN and hear Murph's last call. The Mets lost 4-1 to the Pirates that night. I was on the Bay Bridge as the bottom of the ninth began. Murph's signature was always to say at the end of a Mets win, "we'll be back with the happy recap." It was pretty apparent there wasn't going to be a happy recap for Murph's final game. He knew it too. So, as the ninth began he said, "well, the Mets are going to need to rally here if there's going to be one last happy recap."

The Mets didn't rally. But I had a big smile on my face hearing Murph talk about the happy recap one last time.

And women wonder why all men cry when Kevin Costner says, "Hey dad...want to have a catch," at the end of "Field of Dreams."


Anonymous said...

I used to watch Bob Rathbun do Braves and Hawks games. He is a terrible announcer, and I am told, a worse person.

VP81955 said...

John, don't forget that Ernie Harwell initially broadcast the Brooklyn Dodgers (as a fill-in when Red Barber was ill) and the New York Giants (he was on TV when Bobby Thomson hit the famous home run in '51) before going to Baltimore and Detroit. A great gentleman, and part of my triumvirate of baseball broadcasters along with Harry Kalas, who we lost in April, and Vin Scully, who plans to retire next year.