Game ready

I remember the first time I ever saw a microwave oven. It was about 1978, and my dad’s college roommate who lived in Tennessee had one. He showed my dad how to make an egg in it, which maybe took 30 seconds, and my dad was sold on the concept. As soon as we got back home from our visit to Tennessee, we acquired one of our own. Food preparation was a whole lot quicker after that.

My kids, who have never lived in a world without microwave ovens, might be excused for believing that anything more than three-and-a-half minutes is an eternity to wait for food. All of the prep work for food is done somewhere else, and all that’s left to be done is to take the carton from the box, set the timer, and wait a couple of minutes. Anything more than that is beyond comprehension to them.

That sort of mindset seems to have spilled over into sporting goods, as well. The sporting goods store itself is a thing of the past, with places like Wal-Mart and Target being the place to go for sporting goods today. This evening I was in a Target store with my teenager, wandering the aisles looking for a few things, when I came upon a by-product of the microwave mentality. I knew that I had to say a few words about it here. That’s why I do this, after all.

I was walking past a sporting goods aisle (there are two or three in the store) when I noticed their baseball gloves. I picked out a Rawlings model (left-handed, of course) and tried it on my hand. It was indicated as being for 7-9 year olds, which is about how old I was when I got my first glove. And this glove was black, too, just the way mine used to be when I was a kid. But there was a big difference between the glove on my hand in the picture above (I’m on the left, in the catching position) and the glove that was on my hand this evening in Target.

The difference was that the glove on my hand was described as being “game ready,” which is a term for a glove that’s already broken in. My glove, and the glove of my friend Scott in the picture, and the glove of every young kid in the 1970s, didn’t come in “game ready” condition. It came stiff and uncomfortable. There was one way to have a game ready glove, and that’s what we were doing in the picture.

We played catch in the back yard. We also played on baseball teams (but different ones, because I’m a year older than he is), and we played “hotbox” a lot, too. You basically had two players with their goves on, guarding two bases, and a runner trying to reach one base or the other safely. It was hours of fun for baseball-playing youth who didn’t have video games to distract them. Or sometimes, when it was dark outside and playing baseball wasn’t an option, I worked my glove by essentially pounding the ball with my left hand into the glove on my right hand. It was like playing catch with myself, really.

The payoff, after about a year or so of playing baseball all the time, was a glove that was properly broken in. That’s a lot better than “game ready,” in my mind, because an attachment to something was formed along the way. And a kid today, assuming he wants to play baseball in the first place, doesn’t have to break his glove in anymore. He can just skip the trouble and get a “game ready” model, instead. But he’s missing out on something by doing it this way, even if he doesn’t know what that something is.

This sounds like me being a humbug. And, truth be told, I love my microwave just as much as the next person does. But breaking in my baseball glove was a corner that I didn’t cut, and all these years later, I’m happy that it turned out that way.

An old poem made new again

April 26, 2012 was National Poem in Your Pocket day. I wasn’t aware of this until I saw something on Facebook about it. After all, that’s what grabs our attention anymore, isn’t it?

I’m not always a follower of this kind of thing, but I wanted to participate in this. It was probably the poetry angle that drew me in. As my first thoughts often lead me to baseball, I wanted to have a copy of Edward L. Thayer’s Casey at the Bat at the ready, to share with whoever I might encounter.

Thayer’s poem has endured since it was first published, under a pseudonym, in 1888. Its fame was spread by an actor named DeWolf Hopper, who basically made his living by reciting this poem in town after town on the live theater circuit. Every time he would perform, people clamored to hear the poem performed dramatically. Having performed it live once myself, I can tell you there’s a lot of fun that can be had with it. Here’s James Earl Jones’ version of it.

Casey tells a great story of optimism and confidence and ultimate letdown. It wouldn’t be the same if Casey had hit the home run to win the game. I think it appeals to us because even the mighty, almost superhuman  Casey is still prone to failure, even with the game on the line and the home crowd on his side. Casey is Goliath, after all, and human nature often pulls us toward David, instead.

I found a copy of Thayer’s Casey in the pages of A.G. Spalding’s America’s National Game. The book was first published in 1911, but I found a 1992 reprint of it in a bookstore many years ago, and have kept it at my desk ever since. It tells of the earliest days of the game’s history through the eyes of a baseball lifer, one whose name appeared on all major league baseballs until the mid-1970s. Rawlings has made the official major league ball since then.

But before I could take the book to the copier, I began perusing some of the other baseball poetry that appears in Spalding’s book. And I found a great poem that I knew I had to carry with me instead of Casey at the Bat.

I Googled the name of the poet–S.D. Richardson–and nothing came up. No Wikipedia entry, or anything else that might identify who he or she was. The initials made me think of J.K. Rowling, and the story of how her initials were used to mask her identity as a woman when the book first came out. The “S.D.” could mean “Stephen Daniel” or “Stephanie Danielle” or a hundred other things. But in the absence of any evidence, all I can do is wonder about the meaning of these initials.

Not only could I not learn anything of the poet’s identity, but I couldn’t find the poem online, either. It seems that when the world started moving onto the internet, shortly after this 1992 reprint of Spalding’s book appeared, Richardson’s poem didn’t make the leap.

And so, the history geek and the baseball nerd that I am is proud to present what might be the first digital rendering of S.D. Richardson’s “Base Ball.”

Base Ball

by S.D. Richardson

‘Tis a glorious game, with a well-earned fame,

A diamond in royal setting;

And its beautiful rays light up our days

From the field with an emerald fretting.

So day after day I am watching the play,

Absorbed in the outings and innings;

Though I risk not a dime, I’m gainer each time,

And the joy that it gives is my winnings.

But sometimes on a day my mind is away

From the game with an idle perusing,

And I think of another so much like the other

That I blend them together in musing:

‘Tis the old game of life, with its conquest and strife,

With its wonderful outings and innings;

Where the umpire of fate forever doth wait

Giving gladness and sorrow for winnings.

There’s the man at the bat, he’s a king on that plat,

And he watches the ball that is fleeting

Till his blow meets the same, and it soars o’er the game

And receives from the people a greeting.

‘Tis the man who doth wait while fortune that’s great,

Changing hands like the shuttle in weaving.

Comes and touches his mace, and he runs every base,

While the people shout “Luck is retrieving!”

See the pitcher, whose aim is surely not tame,

While his curvings are often perplexing;

And the poise of his fist, with the twist of his wrist,

To those running the bases is vexing.

‘Tis the man who in fame hits the mark all the same,

Though he throws a curved ball there to do it;

And the one who would steal a base on his field,

Will have cause to remember and rue it.

And the catcher with nerve that all good might deserve,

And a visor drawn low for the danger;

With a smile by that base that’s as cruel to face

As the blow of a spiteful sky-ranger–

‘Tis the man of strong nerve, whom no terror can swerve,

And who laughs where the peril is thickest;

And he guards the home base ‘gainst the strong in the race,

And outs them with hand that is quickest.

There’s the guard at each base who, alert in his place,

Knows the work and performs it with pleasure;

And the fielders that stand with the game well in hand

And consider high balls but a treasure.

‘Tis the men of each age, who on history’s page

Have written their names with their actions;

Catching fame on the fly, though it comes from the sky,

And ne’er bothered with foolish attractions.

So the old game of life, with its conquest and strife,

Ever moves, with no pause or delaying.

The wise and the great and the foolish with fate

on the field of the great world are playing.

And the games will ne’er close ’till the books shall disclose

All the wonderful outings and innings,

With the sun ‘neath the West and the players at rest,

And the blest with their bountiful winnings.

This poem made the connection between baseball and life, long before any t-shirts ever did. It’s a bit hard to follow in parts, but the first half of the final stanza is just great. I read that part to some colleagues today and they were impressed by it.

National Poem in Your Pocket day was certainly a big success, for myself and for S.D. Richardson. I’m certainly no DeWolf Hopper or James Earl Jones, but if I’m the one to bring this poem into the digital age, then I’ll humbly accept that role. Thanks for reading, as always.

Tells me all I need to know

About a year and a half ago, I went on a tour of the Louisville Slugger bat factory in (where else?) Louisville, Kentucky. I’ve written about it briefly here, but it’s well worth a visit if you find yourself anywhere near Louisville. Consider that before the company came along, batters would hold things like table legs when they went up to bat. I think we can all agree this company is an important part of baseball’s history. In fact, Rawlings might be the only competition they really have in this area.

As you might expect, the bat factory has a gift shop, where hats, shirts, and all other manner of items with the Louisville Slugger logo are available for purchase. Everyone who takes the tour gets a minibat with the museum’s logo on it, but if you want to get one with your team’s logo, fortunately they’re available, too. The company uses the term minibat as one word, without a hyphen, so I’ll adopt their usage here as well.

Or at least, they’re supposed to be available. Maybe this one visit was an anomaly, and it just happened to be on the day that things were this way. But since I’ve never gone there before this day, and may not ever get there again in my lifetime, I’m taking this experience to be representative of the way things generally are. For whatever that’s worth.

Every team in the major leagues has a bin with its name above it at the Louisville Slugger gift shop. And in those bins, there’s enough room for approximately 50 minibats, each one bearing that team’s logo. So if you’re visiting from Tampa, and you want to pick up five or six of these things to pass around the office when you get back, they’ll take care of you. For five bucks apiece, that is.

I didn’t really need that many minibats, and one would have been fine for me. So I look for the Cubs bin, and…empty. Every other team in the majors were filled to overflowing, and there wasn’t a single Cubs minibat to be had. The Louisville Slugger Museum minibat I already had was going to have to be enough for me.

Could it be that the Cubs’ souvenir shop called in with a special order? I suppose so. And is it possible that someone scooped up all the Cubs minibats for their buddies back in Chicago? It seems like a long shot, but I suppose that could happen, too.

Or is a more likely explanation that the Cubs have a large fan base that is willing to shell out five bucks for something like this? I think that’s entirely possible. Louisville Slugger wants to sell the goods that they make, and an empty bin for them means they’ve already had a significant level of sales for that team. And it also means they’ll need to make more in order to keep up with the demand.

Don’t Yankees fans, and Red Sox fans, and Cardinals fans, and all the other teams’ fans want one of these team minibats, too? I can’t imagine that it’s only Cubs fans who would want something like this. And yet they were the only team that was sold out, or anything close to it, on the day that I was there in the gift shop.

While I was disappointed that I couldn’t get a minibat with a Cubs logo that day, I was also heartened that the Cubs appeared to be in such great demand. It’s definitely the sort of glass-half-full approach that a Cubs fan needs to have in order to survive.