When my family took the 125-mile trip east, it was almost always for one of three reasons: to pick up someone at Lambert Field, to watch my sister compete in the state spelling bee finals at the Famous-Barr building, or, the best, to watch the St. Louis Cardinals play baseball.
A tableau of my childhood would include my grandparents having their lunch in the breezeway: big slabs of pink tomatoes my grandfather grew, sliced cucumbers and onion slivers in vinegar, sugar, and pepper, meat of some sort, and the radio, with Paul Harvey on KFRU, followed by the Cardinals game called by Harry Caray, Joe Garagiola and Jack Buck.
Every kid in Missouri was deeply invested in the exploits of Stan Musial. The games were played at Sportsman’s Park. Baseball was more important then.
The Cardinals moved to Busch Memorial Stadium in 1966. We would go and see them there a few times each season. My favorite season was 1967, though we were there for the Pirates game on July 15, my sister’s birthday, when Roberto Clemente whacked a line drive that hit pitcher Bob Gibson in the leg. Gibson pitched to three more batters before he collapsed. His leg was broken. (He would come back to pitch and win three complete games in the World Series two and a half months later.)
But before that tragic day I learned the best secret a Missouri kid could know, a secret known to very few.
If you would hang out on the pedestrian bridge from the stadium to the parking garage after the game, in due course the players would all come walking to their cars. They would stop and talk with the kids there, autograph gloves, give pitching, fielding and batting tips, make jokes, and over time even come to recognize some of us.
They included the godlike Gibson, whose high-pitched voice seemed out of character for such a fearsome monster of the mound. (It was Gibson’s performance in 1968 that led the Major Leagues to lower the pitcher’s mound by half a foot.) I remember staring at his right hand. That was the hand, that hand right there, that very hand, that so mortified National League batters and often those in the American League come early October. (Said his catcher, Tim McCarver: “Bob Gibson is the luckiest pitcher I ever saw. He always pitches when the other team doesn't score any runs.”)
One after another they’d come: Lou Brock, Roger Maris, Curt Flood, Orlando Cepeda, Mike Shannon, Tim McCarver, Julian Javier – “Hoolie! Hoolie! Hoolie!” when referenced from the stands – and Dal Maxvill, the shortstop. There would be lesser lights as well, such as Steve Carlton. Of them, Gibson, Brock, Cepeda and, yes, Carlton would wind up in the Baseball Hall of Fame. There was no greater greatness available to a kid on a hot summer night in St. Louis, or anywhere, than hanging out for a while with those guys. And those guys were happy to hang out with us.
I suppose almost everyone remembers a particular perfect team from back when baseball was important, and how the players got traded, or retired, and other passions replaced the love of baseball. I’ve dipped back in from time to time – Ozzie Smith was certainly a compelling player, as, later, was Albert Pujols. The 1985 world series, which I predicted in June would be between the Cardinals and Kansas City’s Royals, was a disappointment because nobody not from Missouri gave a damn about it. During decades in New York, I endured the hangdog Mets fans and the irritating Yankees fans (who do not seem aware that the vast bulk of the country is rooting for whoever is playing the Yankees), which is enough to put anyone off the game. And Red Sox fans, who are just kind of pitiful.
Last week DirecTV offered a free preview of its service that broadcasts every Major League game. While I am not going to spend $160 or so to have the service all summer, it was instructive to see what baseball has become.
It has become awful.
Where to begin. Pitching, I suppose. In a game I watched last week, a total of 15 pitchers were employed by one side or the other during a nine-inning game. Where the hell did that come from? In an earlier and better day, if the starting pitcher didn’t finish the game, he had screwed up. They now have a pitch counter, and the commentators speak in worried tones after a pitcher has thrown more than about 60 pitches. (Gibson would throw 100 pitches sometimes – but that many throws meant it was an extra-innings game.) They also are worried now about the speed of pitches in miles per hour. (Gibson didn’t pitch miles per hour. He pitched strikeouts.)
Last Thursday night, Cleveland pitcher Trevor Bauer pitched a no-hitter through seven innings. And the manager pulled him! The reliever gave up three hits. There was a time when such a manager would have faced an angry crowd after the game. Well, what was left after the pitcher was done with him would have.
Used to be, a ball was used until it flew into the stands as a foul or home run. This meant that balls that had gotten whacked a few times got a little misshapen. Pitchers loved it when they got to throw something resembling a potato. But now if a ball touches the ground, it is replaced. They go through 100 balls a game.
Speaking of commentators, they’re generally terrible. The exceptions are the guys who call Pirates games, which include former pitchers Steve Blass and the unfortunately named Bob Walk, who actually offer interesting and useful commentary. Alone among those I listened to last week, Blass and Walk were capable of imparting a love of the game.
The other commentators are into “analytics,” a word and discipline that ought to be banished from baseball and everything else. Player selection, coaching decisions, everything – it’s all handled by geeks with computers. If a team doesn’t win a game, it’s due to the unfortunate fact that the players are flesh-and-blood humans instead of robots.
Likewise, there’s now a wire frame depicted (on television, it isn’t physically there) of the strike zone. It’s distracting and also of no use in determining whether a pitch is a strike or a ball. Better they sell the gadget and put the money into hiring someone who can talk about baseball.
Last week I watched a lot of terrible pitching and errors that made it seem if the teams were the Three Stooges times six. A lot of bats were broken. I wondered what in creation was going on, before figuring it out: they’re beginning the season way too early, and it’s too cold for players and their equipment. As an example, it was 39 degrees when Kansas City played Detroit last Thursday, and that was a day game. You can’t play baseball in those conditions. For comparison, 1967’s opening day was April 11 as opposed to this year’s March 28.
Games have gotten too long. I watched nine innings take just under four hours. That’s ridiculously slow. Though I confess to enjoying the five-hour, 11-inning game last Monday between the Cardinals and the Pirates, which was, among other things, the only game I’ve ever seen in which the home-plate umpire had to leave the game due to an injury (he’d caught two foul balls in his face mask in the course of one inning, and you could almost see the little birdies and stars flying around his head, cartoon-style).
Only two current Cardinals seemed to me to have the makings of long-ago greatness. They’re the first baseman, Paul Goldschmidt (who hit three home runs against the Brewers Friday before last, his second day as a Cardinal), and the young Harrison Bader, a talented cocker spaniel of an outfielder who is both a dandy player and clearly excited to be there.
But the game has been made awful.
Baseball used to be important, and it’s sad that it doesn’t seem to be important anymore. As long as we’re going around making things great again, let’s do it to the national pastime.
Editor's note: Dennis E. Powell’s column appears on Mondays. You can reach him at email@example.com.