Friday, June 18, 2010

These interpretations of baseball remind you of the game’s power and goodness

I picked up my new Flower City Base Ball Club uniform this morning – the one I’ll be wearing when we open our 10th season of playing and interpreting the 19th century game Sunday at the Genesee Country Village & Museum in Mumford. And I must admit I felt a tinge of excitement similar to what I experienced when I picked up my first Little League uniform in Rome, N.Y. some 44 springs ago.

As I pulled the jersey over my head and gazed into the mirror, I was reminded of the grip the game continues to have on me all these years later. There is something truly special about putting on a uniform, regardless of the sport. Something transformative, something that can make you feel good about yourself.

Although the body that wears that uniform Sunday will be sure to remind me that I am 55 and not 15, my soul will argue otherwise.

Tomorrow, when I head to Frontier Field to help out at the annual Challenger Little League Baseball World Series for young people facing mental, physical and emotional challenges, I will witness similar transformative powers of a uniform. Kids who normally wouldn’t get a chance to experience the sensation of putting bat to ball and traversing the bases will be out there in full baseball garb. It will be their time to shine, their time to feel good about themselves.

Although the glove-less 1864 and ‘65 game we interpret and play in Mumford and the Challenger Little League game on display Saturday at Frontier are dramatically different from the baseball most are accustomed to, the core values are the same.

And while the kids in the wheel chairs and walkers and us creaky-kneed geezers in our funny 19th century regalia don’t have big-league talent – or even minor-league talent for that matter – we’re every bit the equal of the big boys in one respect: We love the game as much if not more than the men with the jillion-dollar contracts. And that passion can’t be measured in dollar signs.

So, if you are looking for something to do this Father’s Day weekend, head out to Frontier Saturday or the Genesee Country museum Sunday. You’ll see plenty of joy in Mudville. I can assure you that.

In honor of the Challenger World Series and the opening of the 19th century base ball season this weekend, I reprint two columns that, hopefully, will give you some insight into the uniqueness of these two disparate interpretations of our national pastime:

Challenges met at Frontier Field
The boy was somewhat reluctant at first, almost scared. He
had never been around physically and mentally challenged
children before. He didn't know how to act or what to say as he
walked onto the field at Frontier Field last July and saw kids in
wheelchairs, kids on crutches, kids without arms or legs.

He had signed up to be a "guardian angel," a helper at the
Challenger Baseball World Series, matching teams from Fairport
and Greece. But as he wheeled a girl with cerebral palsy to the
plate, he sweated bullets, wondered what he had gotten himself

The girl swung the bat and hit the ball, and he began pushing
her toward first. She shouted joyously as they chugged down the
line and past the base safely.

She high-fived him.

He smiled.

There would be many more smiles before game's end. Smiles
from kids sitting in wheelchairs. Smiles from kids pushing them
around the bases.

After the game, in which hugs outnumbered hits, the boy
shared a hot dog and a coke with his teammate in the picnic area.

The simple act of putting a bat on a ball had brought them
together for two hours. It would be two hours neither would forget.

They will play another World Series at Frontier tomorrow
morning. The game is open to the public. Admission is free. Go if
you get a chance. It will be two hours you won't forget.

You will see kids once restricted from playing ball wearing
uniforms and taking their turn at bat. You will see stereotypes get
knocked over the wall. You will see 'buddies' and 'guardian angels'
focus on similarities rather than differences.

Youth sports leagues take a beating, and in too many cases
the criticism is justified. Parents become overzealous. Coaches put
winning above all else. Kids suffer.

But Challenger Baseball is sport at its best. Outs are recorded
but not counted. Half-innings are determined by nine batters not
three outs. Everybody plays. Nobody loses.

These kids approach the game with a passion often missing
from the guys in the big-league uniforms. You won't hear any
whining. You won't hear any threats of work stoppages.

"It's a great feeling to put that uniform on and get a chance to
Play just like kids in other leagues," says Brendan O'Riordan, a
senior-to-be at Fairport High School and a veteran of several
Challenger seasons.

O'Riordan has cerebral palsy. He also has a glove and a bat
and a strong desire to play the game. For years, he had been a
spectator, helping out with his brother's Little League team,
serving as the manager for the Fairport varsity football and
baseball teams.

"It's kept me involved, but there's nothing like playing," he
says. “Getting out and doing it yourself - that's what's most

O'Riordan will be out there tomorrow, attempting to hit and
field like his Yankee hero, Don Mattingly. He will be joined by
roughly 75 other Challengers.

Each of them will have an able-bodied buddy or guardian
angel. Some are sure to be as nervous as a batter stepping to the
plate with two outs and the bases loaded in the bottom of the

But the crack of the bat and the thud of ball into glove will put
them at ease. On this day, fear will strike out, joy will smack a

Our pastime without TV, megadeals and egos

When I told one of my son's Little League baseball teammates that I play in a 19th century league where they don't use gloves, he looked at me as if I had three eyes. He wondered if I also played football without a helmet and drove my car blind-folded.

"You mean you catch the ball with your bare hands?" he asked. "Geez, that must hurt like hell."

At times, it does.

Jammed and broken fingers occasionally are the price we pay to transport ourselves and visitors to the Genesee Country Village & Museum back in time. But any vintage baseballist worth his salt will tell you that the price is right. We are having too good a time to be stopped by minor inconveniences such as bruised hands or bloody knees.

In many respects, we are like those folks who reenact Civil War skirmishes. We enjoy interpreting history. We believe the past helps us understand the present and the future.

Plus, we are hams. The thespian and the little kid in us often comes out during these matches. The diamond is our stage and our playpen. This is one of those places where men will be boys.

There are some obvious differences between us and our Civil War brethren. For starters, we interpret the 1800s on a ballfield rather than a battlefield. We wield double-knobbed, bottle-shaped bats rather than rifles with bayonets. And the ball, while capable of hurting you, isn't nearly as hard as a bullet or a modern-day hardball. It is made of a leather cover wrapped around yarn and an India rubber core. (For that, we are thankful.)

We all go by nicknames. Yours truly is "Scribe," after what I do for a living. We have a University of Rochester med student known as "Doc," a quick-footed leprechaun of an outfielder known as "Irish," a wily hurler we call "Perfessor," and a long-ball stroking first baseman known as "Country Mile."

In character, we often resort to language that sounds foreign to the 21st century fan. When we want a teammate to hustle, we implore that he show a little ginger. Our bats are willows, our ball an apple, pill, horsehide or onion. The catcher is a behind, infielders are basetenders, and outfielders scouts. A daisy cutter is a well-hit grounder, while a dew drop is a slow pitch. Batters are strikers and fans are cranks.

The rules sound foreign, too. Pitches are delivered underhand with a locked elbow - slow-pitch softball style without the arc. A striker can ask the umpire to tell the hurler exactly where to place the pitch. Foul balls don't count as strikes, but if you catch one on the first bounce, the striker is out. The one-bounce rule also is in effect for fair balls.

Hitters are required to bat flat-footed. There is no striding into the ball, meaning your power must be generated by your arms and torso. (Our game is a chiropractor's dream.)

The umpire has final say in all matters, though on occasion he'll seek the help of the fans or the tallykeeper.

Matches are truly social events. There are pre-game parades through the village, featuring military bands and horse-drawn wagons. Players court single women at the park (that hasn't changed) and reporters (that has). Positive publicity occasionally can be garnered by bribing a base ball scribe with a bottle of his favorite whiskey. (Sportswriters clearly had lower standards in those days.)

Playing surfaces are rocky and uneven. True hops are the exception rather than the rule, even at lush, green Silver Base Ball Park, the only 19th century replica diamond in the United States.

Our uniforms are somewhat odd looking. We wear wool-blend long-sleeve jerseys with bow ties and caps that remind you of a railroad conductor. Metal spikes aren't allowed. Neither are Nike swooshes or adidas stripes.

The emphasis is on hitting 'em where they ain't rather than over the fence. Sorry, Mr. Bonds, but home runs are looked down upon. Singles hitters are the rage in vintage base ball, particularly those who can direct the ball to the opposite field. There is no stealing or leading off, and bunting is frowned upon, though some attempt to cloud the issue with what is known as a slow hit.

The game we interpret stresses sportsmanship and gentlemanly behavior. Players blurting profanity are usually hit with a fine by the umpire.

We interpret a purely amateur game. We are a century removed from the era of whiny millionaires. When we say we play for the love of the game, our words are as solid as one of our northern white ash willows.

Although I've competed in the 19th century game for three years, I'm still learning that I have to unlearn so many 20th and 21st century rules. This is not your father's game. Or your grandfather's game, for that matter.

But it is a lot of fun. An opportunity to take ourselves and others back, back, back in time.


Joe T said...

These are two of my favorite columns. Thanks for rerunning them. It was great to read them again!
Joe T

"Hacksaw" said...

This article still puts a lump in my throat.
It's unfortunate that I will miss this season due to injury, but I will there occasionally to participate in the camaraderie as a member of the Rochester nine.

Tim Z said...

Love these articles Scribe. Your piece on Vintage baseball should be required reading for all in the league. I haven't played in a few years and I miss the game tremendously. Its the game in its purest form, and one can argue, at its best. I cant wait for the day when my son sees a picture of his dad in the "funny uniform" and asks me what I was doing :)

Good luck to you, your fellow teammates and all involved in the league.

"Kid" from the Knickerbockers