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Friday, August 31, 2012

The Heart of the Game

In that the majority of people that read this blog are not Americans, many of you are probably not baseball fans.  Heck, even in the US, many of you are not baseball fans.  Most people I talk to who attest to the fact that they don't enjoy baseball tell me that it's a "dull" sport, played by over-paid, arrogant men  who stand around most of the game and scratch themselves.

Yeah, I will agree with you to some extent on the player part, but "dull"?  Not if you know what you are looking at.

Admittedly, in the past 20-30 years, there has been a real disconnect with the players and the fans.  There is a reason for that and we'll get into that a bit later but what I want to talk to you about is a three day period when I all but forgot about cancer, treatment, doctors, prognosis and surgeries.

I want to talk to you about the three days that a friend took me to a ball game.

Larry Cafiero and I have been friends since 2007.  We've collaborated on a number of projects and over time, we've become close.  When a number of you discovered that I had cancer, you immediately assumed the worst, and that's asked me if I wanted to do anything in particular to fulfill my "bucket list".

While I never considered my condition in that frame of mind, I honestly did not think of my illness in those terms.  However, it didn't take much thinking to come up with an answer.

I want to go to some baseball games with my friend Larry.

And in a short sentence....Larry made that happen this week.  And what a week it was.

Larry got hammered with problems as soon as he stepped out his front door in Felton California.  Larry doesn't fly so his transportation choices were limited.  Hurricane Issac was still an unknown trajectory and in their infinite wisdom, Amtrak canceled the train from LA to Houston.  Larry informed me and started making alternate plans on the fly.  As soon as he found a bus route, they informed him that the train was back on schedule but would only travel to San Antonio in order to miss the storm.

A storm that in fact, never came close to touching within miles of Texas.

Two and a half days later, I drove to San Antonio and picked Larry up from the train station at 6 AM and we proceeded to Houston and our hotel.  After almost three days of travel, a pulled hamstring and more aerobic exercise than he really wanted, we were in Houston.

Game time was 7:05 PM that same evening and we were there early to see what trouble we could get into.  Unfortunately, the Houston Astros close their batting practice to the public, which sucks by the way.  Fortunately, the San Francisco Giants were having open practice and Larry got the chance to see his guys bat.  But for Astros fans, this deprives them of getting the autographs they seek and being able to see their favorite players up front and personal.  One of the main reasons for this is simple and I saw it first-hand at all three games.

A professional photographer was hanging out on "autograph row", where players will occasionally come by and sign a few baseballs and ticket stubs before the game.  This guy had beautiful large prints of a few players in action on the field and he had them laid out on the rail, hoping some of the players in the individual photos would come by and sign them.  Why?

Because he planned to sell them anywhere from 125 to 500 dollars each.


See, there are some of us that want autographs and a moment to talk with the players simply for the joy of it.  Myself, and thousands of other people who may have played the game at some level, live vicariously through these guys and it's a joy hard to describe when you get to connect with one of them for just a few seconds.

Many if not all of the players resent the fact that people are not getting autographs for this reason, but to make money off of them.  Sure the players make a lot of money...some to absolutely astounding levels but the point is they feel the same way the fans do.  Autographs are cherished mementos, not income opportunities.  Many players just forgo visiting autograph row, as pictured above for just that reason.

It did my heart good to see every player on all three days pass this leech up and give autographs to kids instead.

To be honest, I really have all the autographs I need.  I was there to take in the atmosphere and the pure joy of watching what equates to a small cannon ball being hurled at another player at 95 miles per hour, in the off-chance that he will hit said small cannon ball with a round stick and run until someone either catches the ball or "throws him out".

That's pretty much the game right there in a short paragraph.

But what I did not describe is the absolute cunning of the sport.  Baseball is a game of deception and execution.  Elaborate signals, often mixed in with confusing garbage signals are flashed to the players, in order to tell them what the coach wants them to do.  Opposing coaches try to interpret these signals and give signals of their own to their players, adjusting their positions and letting them know what is to come.  if you get into the game of baseball, you spend more time watching these exchanges than you do the game itself.  Pictured here is a set of two pictures of Jose Altuve, "looking in" at his third base coach, receiving instructions.  In this case, he was being ordered to "steal" second base.  Fifteen seconds after the second picture below was taken, he successfully did so.

It's basically the Orient Express played out on grass.

The highlight of this experience surely wasn't found on the scoreboard, we got our a$$es handed to us.  Larry, being the consummate friend, spared me the gloating.

No, the brightest point of my baseball vacation happened in a time span of about 15 seconds.

On my second night there, I spent most of the pre-game time taking pictures of the players.  Many of them were just guys on a baseball field, playing the game they love and are paid to play.  Sometimes, you run into a player that "gets it".  He knows who pays his salary and that his success would not exist if it were not for the true baseball fan.  One of those players is Bud Norris, starting pitcher for the Houston Astros.  Bud is a bit of a character on and off the field.  He is valued in the clubhouse as much as he is on the field, which is saying a lot.  Bud is the best pitcher the Astros have but you would never know it by his attitude and demeanor.

While up close to the dugout just before the game, I was snapping shots of some of the Astros as they milled around.  I spied Bud and in my scratchy, Godfather voice, I called out to him.

"You scared of a camera Bud?"

he turned around and smiled then struck this pose for me...mugging for the HeliosCam.

That in itself was fantastic and it's a picture I will keep forever, but not for the sake of just having the picture.

The next night, Larry and I were in our seats, and extremely good seats they were.  We were 21 rows up from field level and people will absolutely kill to get seats like these.  Just prior to the game, Bud Norris was standing at the dugout rail and he turned to survey the crowd.  When he scanned past our seats, I smiled and pointed my finger at him as if to say hi.  Bud smiled from ear to ear and pointed back at me and mouthed something....I'm not sure what it was but  guess it doesn't really matter.

I all but forgot about cancer, treatment, doctors, prognosis and surgeries.

 That few seconds in time....that brief but meaningful connection between fan and player is something I will remember and cherish until I am no longer able to so.  And I am sure that sounds silly to many of you...but to me, it was an acknowledgment, a wink and nod between two people who recognized each other and valued that recognition, at least for a moment.

So you can keep all the home run balls, all the screaming foul balls that you might catch with the flair of an all-star.

I've got three days with a close friend and 15 seconds with a major league ball player who recognized my face.

I don't need anything more than that.

All-Righty Then


Mitch Farris said...

How in the HELL did you get shots that close? I've been to dozens of ballgames all over the country and in any stadium I've ever been in, they would throw you out for trying to take pictures that close, unless you had front row seats.

Glad you had a good time Ken, you deserve it. You should take more vacations.

Anonymous said...

I'm beside myself! Yes, to me baseball was just a dull, boring sport. That is until you explained it to me... the right way. I think the National Baseball League or whoever is in charge of the sport should publish your little gem here.

You did an excellent job of transmitting the joy you felt Ken. You've got me interested in checking out the sport now. You have no idea what a stretch that is. As big or bigger than switching from Windows to GNU/Linux. There is a lot of inertia there.

Unknown said...

@ Mitch

Many of them were taken before the game started and lots of people take pics of batting practice and players but during the game itself, I think my friend Larry was holding his breath, just waiting for one of the security people to give me the hook. I guess I'm just charmed, or was for that weekend anyway.

Unknown said...

@ Anonymous

I grew up playing the game and went on to a less than stellar "career" in college. (mostly kept the bench seat warm) so I have years of exposure to the game and enjoy immensely the nuance. I'm glad you are going to take a second look. Watching it on TV, you only get a tiny perspective as to what I am talking about but good seats at a major league game will let you see the drama as it unfolds.

James Dixon said...

Glad you enjoyed yourself Ken.

Keep us updated. We're all rooting for you.

Unknown said...

I have been to two baseball games
(professional that is) in my life and it wasn't even a baseball game at all. Of course it was, but what I mean is that is was an entire different experience. Boring on Tv to me, but wouldn't be if I got into the real dynamics of the sport. Going to a game though is awesome even if you hate the game.
I am thankful for your friend coming out to visit and you could get your mind off the "stuff". Your friends actions sheds light on my own selfishness. I didn't realize and thanks to your blog here I will try to do better.