The Observer’s windup is stiff, our curve ball hangs and we don’t have the durability to fling our body under a tag, but sometimes we miss playing. We haven’t played ball since we took up golf in high school, a sport that will last us a lifetime, so we’re told. Now relegated to the bleachers, we miss the smell of that dusty dirt, the clop-clack of our little red cleats on the dugout cement and all that hot leather.
They say you can’t play baseball your whole life. Too much lateral motion. Too much stress on the elbow. Who would squat behind the plate at 65? The squirmy screwball of yesterday has conceded the mound to the overpowering heat, as Bruce Schoenfield reported in last week’s New York Times Magazine. Baseball, today more than ever, is a young man’s game. In the batter’s box, kids like the Washington Nationals’ 21-year-old Bryce Harper, the Baltimore Orioles’ 22-year-old Manny Machado and the Los Angeles Angels’ 22-year-old Mike Trout top the highlight reel with their bat speeds and biceps. Jeter’s leaving the stage.
We’re not upset about it, either. We cheer for the young guns. Hell, they’re sure fun to watch. We saw Trout play left field for the Arkansas Travelers for $6 tickets only two years ago, and we roared when he pounded it over the fence time and time again. And don’t even get us started on Razorback baseball. Even as our favorite veteran commentator Chuck Barrett moves to basketball and football alone after 22 years in the baseball booth, we have and will continue to follow the diamond piggies as a more reliable source of success than the university’s football or basketball programs.
We don’t think about it every day — how could we? But often, as we admire the speed and power of the young fellas who dominate the game, we’re ever reminded there’s no diamond for old men — at least until we found one last week.
Headed east on Cantrell one recent afternoon, The Observer noted a ballgame on the Bill and Skeeter Dickey Field at the Junior Deputy Baseball Complex. Either because we like to reminisce or we like baseball (the two go well together), we pulled in. To our warmhearted surprise, the teams weren’t full of young bucks vying for scholarship offers with their fastballs. They were the old guys, amateur leaguers dressed out in the respective cotton of the New York Yankees and the St. Louis Cardinals, playing for nobody but themselves and a trio of women in the third base-side grandstand.
The setting itself could take you back. An old, albeit still-functioning, railroad runs behind the fence. The home plate ump held his chest protector in front of him. And there wasn’t a metal bat in sight.
The Yankees starter looked about 70, and The Observer estimated his fastball speed a little less than that. His windup was simple: He raised his arms to the height of his forehead, kicked with a stiff leg, and turned through on the release. He overpowered nobody, but he forced many a popup and groundball, and after the two innings we observed, nobody had crossed the plate. We were reminded of Greg Maddux, who pitched for 22 years in the National League and never whirled a fastball much faster than 90 mph, but who won four National League Cy Young Awards in the mid-’90s. He wasn’t powerful. He was crafty. They called him “The Professor.”
The Observer’s chance to throw a 95 mph fastball has withered as the years have passed, but as we watched the Yankees hold the Cardinals scoreless by the river one Sunday afternoon, we realized maybe we haven’t lost this game for good. We may not be able to steal second, but we can play smart. We can be crafty. This weekend The Observer plans to dig our glove and our old crate of brown baseballs out of the basement. We need to work on that curve.
Speaking of screwballs: The Observer is an incorrigible eavesdropper, as you’ll know if you’ve watched this space for long. It goes with the title, and it sure does make going out on the town interesting, Yours Truly strolling through great fluttering swarms of conversation, hearing all the stuff that politeness and self-absorption would demand we miss. Here’s our favorite bit of overhearing from this week, netted while sitting in a restaurant over in North Little Rock, emanating from a group of seasoned ladies sitting one booth away: “He’s a Spaniard? Like, a SPANISH Spaniard?”
The Spanish Spaniards we can abide. It’s them damned ol’ Zimbabwean Spaniards we have no use for.