Calling the Pen: Trying to figure out why the bug for baseball disappeared - BaltimoreBaseball.com

Baseball Essays

Calling the Pen: Trying to figure out why the bug for baseball disappeared

Photo credit: Joy R. Absalon

Once upon a time, I shared the same feeling many of you who come to this website have about baseball. Playing it, talking about it or watching it were all important parts of life in the summer for me while growing up.

Back then, breakfast was cold cereal and intense examinations of the box scores in the morning paper to see who set the table from the leadoff position, who provided the power from the cleanup spot, who added the unexpected from the bottom of the lineup by getting on base and scoring or by knocking in the late-inning run that would prove the difference between a win and a loss.

Afternoons included three-on-three baseball games on a hot and dusty deserted diamond. In those games, the infielder threw to the pitcher for a putout at first base. Batters called left field or right, with balls not hit to the designated field ruled foul balls. Three fouls after two strikes meant a strikeout.

After dinner, there was baseball on the radio. We withheld our commentary until the commercial breaks between innings so we didn’t miss anything.

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Now, I don’t miss it. I don’t know why. I don’t know when it happened.

Last month, I found myself leaving a Frederick Keys game after the home team failed to score in the bottom of the sixth inning of an eventual loss to the Wilmington Blue Rocks. I left my seat, walked out of the ballpark and happily found no traffic to battle exiting the lot.

Years ago, I could never imagine leaving a game before it was officially over.

I must confess, I did walk out early once before, for reasons that had nothing to do with the quality of the competition or the weather.

It happened during a wonderful baseball road trip to the Midwest one summer several years after I graduated from college.

The trip began with a White Sox game on Sunday night and a Cubs game Monday afternoon. On Tuesday, we saw the Cubs at Wrigley Field in the afternoon and the Sox that night.

The double play helped us get through the next day, when there was no baseball.

Thus fortified, we drove to Wisconsin on Friday to check out the Class A Madison Muskies of the Midwest League, a farm team of the Oakland Athletics before the days of “Moneyball.”

Walking into the Warner Park, which had been built only two years earlier, we were struck by the number of fans carrying cans of Off, the familiar household insect repellent.

The size of the cans, far bigger than we were accustomed to and which have grown to be that of oil cans in my memory, should have warned us.

A closer look at the cover of the game program, with its aerial view of Warner Park and nearby, as in very, very close, Lake Mendota, may have also warned us that we would soon be under constant aerial attack from swarms of voracious mosquitoes.

But we were oblivious.

Perhaps we were distracted by the home team’s “Go, Fish, go!” cheer by fans who flapped and clapped while keeping their wrists and elbows together.

They could have been encouraging future big-leaguers such as Terry Steinbach, a Minnesota native fresh off a stellar three-year career at the University of Minnesota during which he drove in 165 runs in 156 games and hit .375.

Luis Polonia, who would also eventually make the big leagues, would hit .307 that summer, good for fifth in the league.

In the dugout of the visiting Burlington (Iowa) Rangers was outfielder Ruben Sierra, a future all-star in the majors. Back then, Sierra was an 18-year-old kid from Puerto Rico in only his second season of professional baseball in the States.

I don’t know if any of them played that night. I don’t know who won.

I didn’t keep score, instead using my program in a futile attempt to protect my exposed arms and legs. After several innings, bitten and beaten, we gave up and left.

Less than 10 years later, the Muskies left Madison and moved across state lines to become the Western Michigan Whitecaps.

I am still waiting to be bitten by the baseball bug, though I seem to remain a target of hungry mosquitoes.

Keith Meisel spent more than 30 years in community journalism. In that span, he won nearly a dozen first- or second-place awards from the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association in categories ranging from features to sports columns to headlines. For nearly 20 years, he was sports editor for eight weekly newspapers, coordinating local coverage of high school, college and pro teams. During that time, the Cardinal Gibbons High School graduate covered two of the three former Crusaders who played on Super Bowl champions and four Olympians, three of whom won gold medals. One of his few regrets in a career rich in experiences and satisfaction was that a commitment to cover a local diver competing in the 1993 U.S. Olympic Festival meant missing the chance to see a highly touted 18-year-old infielder who had just graduated from Miami’s Westminster Christian School. Before his relationship with Jennifer Lopez, that infielder had a pretty good career in the major leagues. Yes, it was Alex Rodriguez.

Jack Gibbons spent 46 years in sports journalism, including a chunk of that time as sports editor of The Baltimore Sun. Now retired from full-time work, Jack serves as the lead editor and writer for BaltimoreBaseball.com’s “Calling the Pen,” a periodic feature that highlights baseball essays written by the community. If you would like to contribute to ‘Calling the Pen,” send a 750-1,200-word, original piece via email to [email protected] for consideration.

4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. ButchBird59

    July 27, 2019 at 2:02 pm

    Mr. Meisel, thank you for this essay.

    It’s not just baseball but, this is a baseball essay and I’ll get back to that in a minute. First, I’m a sports child of the 1960s and 1970s, and watched all the major sports evolve from athetic contests to television shows. Somewhere, sometime, and someplace somebody decided the public wants to see scoring and more scoring. For the sports purists like me that has been very frustrating.

    When I was a kid, baseball was still primarily a ballpark, newspaper, and radio sport. During baseball season, I remember waking up every morning and checking the Sports section not to see which teams were playing but, which pitchers were starting. I always looked forward to Gibson versus Koufax, Palmer versus Lolich, Carlton versus Seaver, etc. Yes, there were some great hitters too but, the reason they were great hitters was their ability to score and or drive in precious runs against great pitching.

    Even as a young boy, I enjoyed thinking along with the managers. Example: Runner on 1st, 1 out, 3 and 2 count on the hitter, do I send the runner and stay out of the double play and risk a strike out/throw out or stay put and take my chances the guy at the plate can drive a pitch off a potential 20-game winner on the mound? Those moments still happen today but, they’re far less frequent as we now live in the land of short porch ballparks, live baseballs, and .240 hitters swinging for the fences. It’s pretty much home run or strikeout. I suspect it’s because TV networks have decided to cater to casual fans for ratings at the expense of purists like yours truly. Perhaps, I’m beyond purist and just plain too old.

    In any case, I again thank you for the essay and I hope you find your way back to baseball nirvana soon.

    • Jack Gibbons

      July 27, 2019 at 4:45 pm

      ButchBird59, Thank you for responding to Keith’s essay with such a thoughtful response. You, me and Keith grew up on a different game in many respects. I remember the Year of the Pitcher in 1968 when 22 pitchers had sub-2.00 earned run averages. Baseball lowered the mound and shrunk the strike zone to get more offense. Now offense, specifically the emphasis on home runs, is producing all-or-nothing swings, fewer balls in play and less action overall. At some point, baseball will address the livelier balls and players who put in the ball in play will become valuable again. It still might not be pleasing to the purists, or fans of our age, but it’s a game of adjustments — and baseball has to recognize that home run derby every night can get old to even those who appreciate the long ball.

  2. Mlsread

    July 28, 2019 at 2:20 pm

    I hear ya. If feels like a confession. This season, for the first time in 40 yrs of going to Os games, I have left the game early on 3 occasions. I do have a twinge of guilt as I depart each time and want to put my Os bag over my head so no one sees me. Sometimes I just know the magic isn’t going to happen that particular game.

  3. 5brooks5

    July 28, 2019 at 7:25 pm

    How very sad to lose the enthusiasm for the game we obviously love. The summer nights, chuck and bill on the radio. Falling asleep to those sounds. I can’t give that up and I hope the love of the game returns for you. Things change that’s the nature of things, you can find peace in change. God Bless

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