If only for a couple of weeks, we could don our soft-skinned caps, in lieu of hard helmets, and slip into the genteel civility of the game of baseball. George Carlin got it right in his classic, sharp-eyed comparison of Baseball vs. Football. And in a complicated time, darkened by the forces of war and intolerance, a few days of light-hearted cheering just might do us all some good.
Baseball is a 19th century pastoral game. Football is a 20th century technological struggle.
I grew up on baseball. Living in the Bay Area, the San Francisco Giants were the team to beat. Although growing up relatively poor, my parents had clarity of priorities, at least at times, and it usually began around spring training and lasted into post season playoffs.
Baseball begins in the Spring, the season of new life. Football begins in the Fall, when everything is dying.
With little money to spare, they still held firm to the belief that baseball was a cure all, and come the season, the five of us would cram into the outdated, lavender-tinted Valiant station wagon and sputter up the highway towards Candlestick Park.
In my youth, baseball was not just a seasonal pastime, but a way of life. For my younger brother, Johnny, baseball was his early calling. A little league catcher extraordinaire, he was forever my teacher of statistics. He would grill me, mercilessly, as to the Giants players, their numbers and positions, batting averages, RBI, homeruns, errors, stolen bases, bad habits, chewing gum or tobacco, spitter, crotch-scratcher, or both. I dare say there was not another pubescent girl within a 100-mile radius that had a better grip on baseball stats than I.
Baseball is played on a diamond! Football is played on a gridiron, in a stadium, sometimes called Soldier Field or War Memorial Stadium.
Back then, there was nothing quite like entering the old fashioned baseball park; the air thick with good-natured excitement and anticipation, the crunch under foot of discarded peanut shells, hawkers with their trays of steaming hotdogs, watered down beers, ice cream cups and stale Cracker Jack. Choices were few, but plenty; there was mustard, relish, ketchup, and deliciously spongy white flour hotdog buns. The ballparks then were short on glitz, but long on charm. It was, and remains still, a scene of collective joviality, a venue that brings together a wonderful diversity of peoples -- and for no other reason than to cheer for their team.
These were the times of the Giants’ greats. At our tender ages, we were taken to the wonderfully windblown Candlestick Park to watch the likes of Mays, McCovey and Marichal, and Bobby Bonds. There was Dick Dietz and Dave Kingman, and later, my personal heartthrobs as a hormonal teen, the short stop and second base duo of Tito Fuentes and Chris Spier.
In football you receive a penalty. In baseball you make an error.
Our second favorite team was the Cincinnati Reds, due to the fact that my brother was a little league catcher, #5, and Johnny Bench fan, and thus began my advanced tutelage of never ending Reds stats. Bench, Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, Tony Perez – I may have known more about their early careers and bad habits than their managers or family members.
At one particular Giants and Reds game, returning to my seat after collecting an impressive list of autographs of players from both teams, I saw a bat boy being handed a tiny slip of paper. In turn, it was passed onto a park employee who then ran up to my seat and delivered the torn slip. On this miniscule fragment, the MVP Reds catcher, and later to be Baseball Hall of Famer, Johnny Bench, had scribbled, “call me at the Palace Hotel.”
I was numb. But nowhere near as gob smacked as my parents. I believe it was the first time I heard the term, and my parents utter the word, jailbait. And I believe it was the only time I saw beer dribble down my father’s chin. My brother, on the other hand, saw this as the coolest thing imaginable, providing him with instant celebrity amongst his little league teammates and junior high buddies.
Naturally, I called. However, it was under the supervision of my entire family, which hovered within spitting and scratching distance of the wall phone. When Bench asked my age, and heard the cold truth (sweet sixteen), he promptly suggested we remain “friends,” which entitled my family to free tickets to all Reds games being played against the San Francisco Giants at Candlestick Park. That was good enough for us. In fact, it was a grand slam!
Football has hitting, clipping, spearing, piling on, personal fouls, late hitting and unnecessary roughness. Baseball has the sacrifice.
When I turned 18, following my high school graduation, and after two years of phone calls, friendly chats at the ballpark, and great patience, we had our first date. My parents paid for a low budget motel in San Francisco where “we” prepared for the Big Night. To this day, some thirty years later, I recall the exact outfit I agonized over for some time, finally choosing a dress that matched my eye shadow, a form fitted turquoise mini in 100% polyester, cinched at the waist with a wide belt, L’eggs pantyhose in “coffee,” and stylish platform shoes (it was the 70’s). I tried my best to look more sophisticated than my eighteen years, seeing that Bench was eleven years my senior, and being one of the early celebrity ballplayers – he was far more experienced in all aspects of life than I.