As a kid growing up in Baltimore I was a big baseball fan. Still am. Often if I’m just scanning through the channels I default to the MLB Network.
When my TV career was ended, I was home nights for the first time in my professional life. That was different for my wife, who after ten days looked at me and said, “OK, the only rule is we’re not going to watch baseball every night.”
So I guess I’m still a big baseball fan.
Recently they’ve been running classic games on TV and the other day I stopped to watch Dave McNally, a pitcher, hit a Grand Slam for the Orioles in Game 3 of the 1970 World Series to beat the Reds. I hung around to watch the first couple of innings of the 1971 All-Star Game. I was fixated on the talent in the game.
Vida Blue started for the American League and faced Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Johnny Bench, all future Hall of Famers, at the top of the National League order. I counted no fewer than 25 future Hall of Famers in that game. And I realized, wow, I miss baseball.
Apparently, I’m not alone.
“I miss it. I miss watching baseball, I miss trying to figure out a trip to Atlanta or Tampa,” former Suns owner Peter Bragan Jr. said this week. “I want to go see that ballpark in Pittsburgh.”
Baseball has been in Bragan’s whole life, literally, since he was born. His is a baseball family from his uncles through his father, his own college career at Southern Alabama playing for former Major Leaguer Eddie Stanky and into his days of minor league ownership.
“You have no good idea when they’ll come back. Maybe July? Maybe with just a quarter of the fans,” he said when I asked about the uncertainty of the game being played. But then he reminded me about one of the threads that runs through the game.
“I miss the game terribly, he said. “But the greatest thing about baseball is ‘hope springs eternal.’ All baseball fans have that in their DNA.”
I’ve been told feeling nostalgic during this pandemic time is normal. But I’m not nostalgic for baseball of a bygone era. I just miss baseball. I glanced at a calendar the other day and said, “Wait, it’s almost June?”
Growing up in the game, with a college and an 11-year Major League career, followed by running a baseball academy and coaching his own son, Rick Wilkins has been around baseball since he can remember.
“I’ve never not had a baseball in my hand for more than a month in my life,” he said.
“It’s a marker and a measurement of time for me,” he explained this week. “My rhythms seem to be a little bit off. I’m used to having spring training, Opening Day, the first half, the All-star break. My timing is off.”
A pitcher for the JU Dolphins and now president of the university, Tim Cost agreed.
“I live by when pitchers and catchers are reporting,” Cost said of matching the calendar with the game. “I miss baseball in our lives terribly. It’s a great right of spring. When is Opening Day? The second week of July is the All-Star break. It marks time.”
When I asked my former dentist Dr. Ron Elinoff, the biggest baseball fan I know, if he was a little out of sync without baseball, he just laughed.
“Not a little, I’m a lot out of sync. Particularly growing up in New York,” he said.
Ron knows more about baseball than anybody I’ve ever met. Most of my visits to the dentist were dominated by baseball talk. A picture that hung on the wall in his practice even helped me answer a Stump Sam question once.
“We had three Major League teams in New York when I was growing up,” he said, recalling his roots in the game. “We’d cut school to go to Opening Day, Tuesday was Ladies Day; the games were in the afternoon.”
Marking time through the game started when Ron was just a kid in Brooklyn, long before a stint in the Navy that included service in Vietnam found him stationed at NAS Jax.
“April we really looked forward to,” he explained. “Days were getting longer. My grades went down. April and May it was hard to hit the books we were so thrilled to be at a game.”
Elinoff has been visiting the Dodgers in Spring Training since 1980 and has followed them to Arizona since they moved to Glendale eleven years ago. He’s one of about 10,000 fans who saw the last Major League Spring Training game played. Ron was at the Dodger game on March 11th, shortened to 6 ½ innings by rain. The next day they called the games off.
“I was there for five straight days of baseball and to see John Shoemaker (the former Suns manager). So I flew back Friday. Coming back the Brazilian baseball team was on my flight to Atlanta. They were out there trying to qualify for the World Baseball Championships. We all weren’t sure what was going on.”
Both Elinoff and Cost talked about being at a game, the lack of a clock, and the symmetry of the field, the game itself.
“Basketball and football are built around massive personalities,” Cost explained. “Sometimes baseball is seen as not of this time, but the beauty of the game is how much is going into every matchup per at bat, per inning. Pitcher against hitter, fielder against runner, catcher against base stealer.”
Elinoff agreed. “There’s no sport you can appreciate as much as baseball by being there,” he explained. “TV is fine, but you can’t visualize what the players are doing. It’s like a ballet going on, there’s artistry to it. The cutoff man, the catcher running down the first baseline to back up the first baseman.”
“Just to watch them chalk the lines and see the green grass,” he continued. “The grounds crew working, getting the mound ready. I really miss that. If you show up for just the Star Spangled Banner, that’s not enough.”
Ron and his wife Susan have made the trip to Cooperstown for the last thirty years for the annual late summer induction ceremony. He knows the city will suffer since there will be no ceremony for Derek Jeter this year, perhaps expecting their biggest crowds ever.
As you can tell, Elinoff and Cost are big baseball fans. Elinoff eventually bought ten season tickets to Dodger games when they were in Vero Beach and set his professional calendar around spring training games in March.
“I’d look at the spring training calendar in December and go to my book and block off the days I’d be in Vero. I’d take the kids to Sunday games and a guy’s trip to the Wednesday games,” he said, marking time through the game.
When Cost was the Executive Vice President of the Aramark Company in Philadelphia they ran more than twenty stadiums in Major League Baseball. It was his job to check on the stadiums, meet with the owners and make sure things were going right. He always had great tickets. At home at Phillies games he’d make a walk to the upper reaches of the stadium to find a parent and a child together and give them his tickets right behind the screen.
“The more you give to the game, the more it gives back,” he said, somewhat wistfully. “I’d be in a coat and tie so they knew I was somebody official. When I’d escort them down to my seats, to just see the look in the kid’s eyes to be that close to the game . . . it was fantastic.”
I caught up with former Major League pitcher Brett Myers right as he was heading out to practice with one of his three sons this week. Between his 12-year career and working with his kids, Brett couldn’t remember the last time he went this long without a baseball in his hands. But he didn’t mind it.
“When this thing came through we had a chance to do some different things,” he said. “We kind of took it as our summer. We’ll be back into it with lots of travel ball.”
Myers is generally concerned that young players are asked to “overthrow” their arms when they’re young, so forcing them to rest through this shutdown might be helpful in the long run.
“This whole thing gave me time to breathe. My older boy has had tournaments on the weekend since August. We cancelled our nine-year-old’s season just go keep their arms safe. Some parent weren’t happy but I think it’s the best thing to do.”
Throwing batting practice is a natural thing for Myers to do with all of his sons teams, sometimes four times a week. He hasn’t done that in a while and it gave him some new perspective.
“I just threw for 2 ½ hours just yesterday,” he explained of the first day they were allowed back on the field. “That’s one of the things I think about. If I’m sore, what are they going to feel like?”
There’s currently a debate as to whether baseball will have a Major League season this year. Wilkens, Myers, Cost and Elinoff all have differing opinions on how that can, or even should happen.
“It’s tough for the major leaguers,” Myers said. “They can’t take a chance to get hurt. They make a financial decision. How many guys are throwing bullpens? They’re not facing live hitting. Who knows how they’re going to come back.”
“If the issue is really the health of the players it doesn’t make sense,” Elinoff said. “Are 24 year olds going to get on the bus in their uniforms, go to the hotel, shower and stay there? Of course not. My hope is that it’s conveyed as a health issue and not as a money issue. If it’s a money issue, then they’re in trouble.”
Cost hoped the games would return but with a renewed idea.
“I hope it comes back in a form where they rethink how they’re presenting the game. Maybe more afternoon games, a chance to bring more kids and more young people to the game.”
“There’s no families out on the weekend, no kids playing, it’s just bizarre,” Wilkins said of the absence of the game. “It’s a Wilkins family way; the boys play baseball. It’s strange. It’s part of the fabric of who we are. It’s no good, not being able to go to games and watch kids grow as people and as players. There’s no other way to say it, it’s something that needs to be there. I just miss it.”
I used to say when I was asked to speak at banquets that baseball is the game that best emulates life. It’s an individual performance as part of a greater team goal.
That’s never been truer than now. We’re all in this game together, marking time. Let’s keep doing our part.