A week ago today, I spent my 76th birthday with seven family members at Nationals Ball Park sitting in field level seats behind home plate generously provided by a college classmate who is part of the family who own the Washington Nationals baseball team. I cannot lie that the seating and service were incredibly comfortable, affording a close-in view of our field of dreams that evening.
Now that I have bragged about the venue, I will wax a bit philosophically about a sport that continues to grab the attention of American spectators across the country. As someone who always tended toward faster contact sports—and began playing lacrosse at age 10—I always wondered why Major League Baseball (MLB) remained popular, particularly in relation to professional football.
Fans arrive hours ahead of a National Football League (NFL) game to engage in tailgating, an activity that requires ample consumption of food and alcoholic drinks. Add to that pre-game socializing the compulsion felt by many to paint their faces and wear outlandish costumes to immerse themselves as fans of gladiatorial combat.
Talk about escapism in its most blatant form.
Behavior at a pro-football game often reflects the costumes: wild and crazy at times. The fourth quarter of a football game at the Baltimore Ravens M&T Stadium can bring not only heroic performances, but equally obnoxious outbursts by loyal, inebriated fans. The spectacle in the stands can be disconcerting.
MLB games are different, almost boringly so. While the action on the field is not spellbinding, it is captivating in a more subtle way. It also brings out athleticism unconnected whatsoever to a crushing football block or tackle, or an acrobatic catch in the end zone.
The battle between a wily pitcher and a determined batter is almost a piece of art. Its final stroke is unpredictable.
A double play to end a rally is a thing of beauty. I never fail to be impressed.
A home run is always a highlight, perfect symmetry between a batter, his rapidly moving bat and pitch location. Fans immediately become energized.
A perfectly executed bunt—rare indeed—is a marvel. How does a batter accomplish that feat when the pitch may be coming at him at 90 miles per hour?
A stolen base thrills me. The runner’s speed vying with the catcher’s throw to second base, both seemingly arriving at the same time, is mesmerizing.
An incredible catch against the outfield fence by an outfielder timing his jump just right to prevent a home run is a feat that astounds me.
Other reasons draw men and women to a ballpark. A powerful one is memory. I’ll never forget attending a Pittsburgh Pirates game at the now-defunct Forbes Field in Pittsburgh with my brother and uncle and watching an outstanding player named Roberto Clemente perform what seemed like miracles in the field and at bat.
A college friend told me last week, after patiently hearing me describe my birthday at Nationals Ball Park, how he skipped school as a youngster living on Long Island to watch the New York Yankees’ pitcher, Don Larsen, throw a perfect game against the Brooklyn Dodgers in game five of the 1956 World Series at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. He’s now a Philadelphia Phillies fan.
An Easton friend proudly displayed a painting of the game in which Larsen captured history. This friend has always been a steadfast Yankees fan, fondly remembering the minor-league Yankees team that played in the late 1940s in Easton.
Perhaps the experience last Tuesday night will leave a lifelong impression on my grandchildren, 10 and 8. One of them seemed more interested in the food than the action. That just makes her normal.
Baseball offers tradition, childhood memories, clinch hits and mind-boggling fielding (the incomparable Baltimore Oriole, Brooks Robinson, comes readily to mind, as does the remarkable San Francisco outfielder, Willie Mays) that continue to entice fans to watch America’s pastime, surrounded by family and friends amid the thrill of watching superior athletes perform sometime super-human exploits.
As Yogi Berra, longtime New York Yankees catcher and accidental philosopher, once said, “Baseball is 90 percent mental and the other half is physical.” Only Yogi, the master of malapropism, would know what he meant. Nonetheless, his observations are part of the lore and magic that create public interest in baseball.
Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.