Friday, August 5, 2011
Our pastime without TV, megadeals and egos
If you want to see base ball played for the sheer love of the game, may I suggest a trip to the Genesee Country Village & Museum this weekend in Mumford to watch the National Silver Ball Tournament. It’s the ninth time we local 19th century base ballists have staged the three-day event, which will feature vintage teams from the Northeast, Midwest and Canada.
We wear funny uniforms and don’t use gloves (yes, I know that sounds crazy; see more below). And some of our rules might be foreign to the 21st century baseball fan. But I think you’ll get a kick out of it, and I guarantee you, you’ll see players giving it their all.
There are a few games this afternoon around 4, and tomorrow there will be matches from 9 in the morning till 5 in the afternoon at the only 19th century ballpark in the country.
As a primer, I offer below, an essay I wrote in my previous life as a newspaper scribe. Hope to see you this weekend – and if you go, be sure to say “hi” to this hurler from the Flower City Base Ball Club.
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.
For additional information, go to gcv.org
P.S. That photo is of the Excelsiors team that won the Silver Ball championship seven years ago. The Excelsiors are now the Flower City BBC.