Ending the year with the Baseball Solstice: Dec. 31, 2014

The high priests of baseball emerged deep from inside the clubhouse today, where they’ve been holed up since the final out of the World Series to declare Jan. 31 the Baseball Solstice between the 2014 and 2015 seasons.

The solstice each year marks the midpoint between the final out of the World Series and the first exhibition game of spring training. Pablo Sandoval recorded the final putout the night of Oct. 29 as the San Francisco Giants defeated the Kansas City Royals to win a third championship in five years. The first games between major league teams in the Cactus League and Grapefruit League seasons will be played on March 3. That means we’ll have to endure 125 days without the shouts of “Play ball!” and “Beer here!”

Why announcement today, the last day of November — a Sunday, when most Americans are watching football? To be contrary, I suppose. And to be a bit sentimental. November touches October on the calendar, and today is the last time we’ll be able to refer to the series as having been played “last month.”

The coldest — and to baseball fans, cruelest — months lie ahead. The solstice will mark the first glimmer of hope that we’re on the downslope toward the crack of the bat. As I do every year, I recommend that baseball fans spend a bit of time on the solstice reveling in the game: A game of snowball catch in northerly climes, perhaps, or a dash around the diamond if you’re in sunnier spaces. A call to a parent or uncle or friend who introduced you to the game works well any day, but especially so on the solstice.

I ask that anyone reading this post who likes the idea please pass the solstice concept along to other baseball fans. The “next year” of “wait ’til next year” is almost here.

You can’t slide home again: A trip to the diamond of my youth

The Denison Park baseball field in Cleveland Heights, or what remains of it.

The Denison Park baseball field in Cleveland Heights, or what remains of it.

Several weeks ago I was back in the neighborhood where I grew up in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, and I took a stroll down Memory Lane. More accurately, I walked up and down Bluestone Road, the major thoroughfare of my youth, connecting our home on Erieview Road to my grade school in neighboring South Euclid. In between was Denison Park, where I played hundreds upon hundreds of ball games and practices over the years.

I’ve always joked that if I succumb to Alzheimer’s and disappear, put out a Silver Alert that I’ll turn up on the left side of the infield at the Denison baseball field. Even now, I can conjure up the dirt beneath me and I use the toe of my cleats to smooth out a spot at shortstop where I’d crouch and ready myself for the next pitch. With my dad or my buddies or a coach shouting “charge it,” I raced in for countless dribblers to bare-hand and bounders that I’d try to glove at “the top of the hop.” For every grounder I stopped straight on or backhanded, I booted or bobbled another or watched it sail through my legs toward the thick green grass behind me.

In my head, I’m still brushing the dirt off my uniform after snagging a liner on a dive, or whirling and dashing madly back to run down a pop fly in shallow left field.

I can see my CYO coaches, Mr. Spada and Mr. Byrne, watching me whip the ball sidearm to first, impressed but speculating there might be something wrong because I didn’t throw overhand. (I made the team that year, 7th grade, and came back as captain in 8th grade.)

Yes, that swath of dirt at Denison was sacred ground to me, and I wanted to walk it again on my return to Cleveland over the summer. Except that the ball field is gone.

It’s been replaced by the picnic pavilion shown above, which covers a big chunk of the old infield. The area I used to patrol at short is roughly where a group of barbecue grills stand behind the pavilion. The plaque honoring the park founder has been swiped from the boulder that used to sit behind the backstop.

Disappointing, yes, that that old ball field is gone. Even more disappointing: there is no baseball diamond at the park, although the tennis and basketball courts remain and there’s an immaculate new soccer field with artificial turf dominating the center of the park.

IMG_4282My nostalgic mood didn’t improve when I decided to visit the house my maternal grandparents rented in the 1960s on E. 98th Street at Elwell Avenue in Cleveland. The house, the first one on the left as you turn onto the dead-end block, is gone. A grass lot with no trace of a foundation is all that’s there, and the old landlord’s home beside it facing Elwell is heavily boarded and probably is vacant. And on a telephone pole  between the two houses is a sign saying “No ball playing allowed.”

I’ve been stewing on that day of soured nostalgia for a number of weeks, and it’s pointing me to the inevitable decision to stop writing this blog. From the start, I wanted the blog to be something that would express something fresh and interesting on the sport I love, initially using the caps I’ve collected as a peg for posts. I pushed the blog hard for a couple of years, and I enjoyed getting involved in the Baseball Bloggers Alliance, especially for making a number of friends among my fellow bloggers.

This season, my posts have been sparse, and I’ve neglected my alliance duties almost entirely, and maybe that’s for best. In my last post trying to stay current, I picked the Texas Rangers to win the World Series.

I don’t want this blog to devolve into a series of old-man memories of how much better baseball was “back in the day.” I believe firmly the game is still as vibrant and entertaining and special as ever. Look no further than the terrific World Series between my San Francisco Giants and those upstart Kansas City Royals.

It’s a great game, but it’s time for me to head to the blogging showers. I plan one more, likely final post, once the World Series ends. That’s to fix the date for the next Baseball Solstice, marking the mid-point between the last game of the series and the first exhibition game of spring training. If anything lasts from this blog, I’d like it to be that the solstice — my little brainstorm from a couple of long winters ago — gains broad acceptance among baseball fans. That and the notion that baseball is the thread that ties so many families and friends together through the generations.

World Cup Coda: Triumph of the Soccer Moms

UnknownDefining the meaning of teamwork, Germany won the World Cup today with a thrilling victory over Argentina. In the United States, soccer will recede into the background as a third-rate sport, trailing somewhere behind lacrosse and table tennis. That’s the conventional wisdom, anyway, and I don’t believe it applies any more.

Throughout these last several weeks, I’ve listened to a fair amount of sports talk radio, where, generally speaking, the hosts reluctantly mentioned that the World Cup was happening and only rarely actually risked rating points to discuss it. The quadrennial tourney got enough air time, though, for a number of soccer haters to state their shallow case. One of their favorite lines of reasoning — and I heard this on network, New York and Philadelphia broadcasts — was that the only reason that the viewing ratings have been higher is that “soccer moms” have been tuning in.

As if they don’t count. As if football moms and wives and sports-averse brothers and your home economics teacher never watch the Super Bowl.

The point is precisely that the soccer moms and other occasional fans are tuning in. That’s what floats the ratings on a broad basis.

But the upsurge in soccer interest in the U.S. isn’t just because of soccer moms. It’s dads, too. And the kids who’ve been playing soccer in this country for the last two or three decades. My first two kids were born in the early 80s, and my wife and the mothers of our friends’ kids were all soccer moms, piling the youngster into the minivan to play “bunch ball” at the field behind the YMCA or junior high. Those kids of the 80s and those of the early 90s are young adults now, and they’ve been watching the World Cup because they enjoy it and understand the sport because they played it.

This is total conjecture on my part, but I wager most of the soccer haters are fans of the NFL — in other words, those who have the most to lose if soccer’s popularity grows. With the NFL the undisputed king of American sports, football fans have it good now.

But I suspect they’re a touch nervous about the rise of The Beautiful Game.

 

 

Meet the Mets: A first visit to Citi Field

Citi FieldSpending a day at the ballpark with family is always a treat, and yesterday I had the special pleasure of visiting Citi Field for the first time to catch a game with both my sons.

With a temperature in the low 80s, a nice breeze and seats in the shade in Section 311, conditions were perfect to watch the Mets show a surprising outburst of power in defeating the Texas Rangers 8-4 in an inter-league game.

Getting to the ballpark was a breeze, a quick 20-minute train ride from Penn Station on the Long Island Railroad. From there it was a short walk across a boardwalk and through a subway station to the park, a gleaming brick structure festooned with banners of Mets greats from the past. Inside were  all the amenities you expect from a modern stadium. The concourses were wide and offered a convenient selection of food stands and rest rooms without seeming hyper commercialized as I’ve experienced at other parks (see AT&T Park, San Francisco, for Exhibit A).

Our seats were comfortable, the view unobstructed, the sound system excellent, the passageways clear of debris. Had it not been for the pigeons swooping overhead and lighting on the speakers, I almost thought I wasn’t in New York City. But it’s hard to forget you’re in the Big Apple when the oversized guy in the blue and orange jersey three rows in front bellows over his beer cup most of the game. One or two knuckleheads aside, the crowd was family-friendly and well-behaved.

The Citi Field wifi worked flawlessly — something I haven’t found at the parks in Cleveland, Philadelphia or San Francisco in recent visits. So chalk up one more positive for Citi Field. I hope to visit again soon.

 

 

Achieve your dream: Fly to all 30 MLB ballparks

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Is there a baseball fan alive who doesn’t want to visit all 30 Major League ballparks? I doubt it.

This morning I read in The New York Times about Hopper, an intriguing new site that allows travelers to research optimum times to fly from Point A to Point B (and Point C, and Point D, etc.). Read the Times story for the details and caveats, but go straight to the Hopper research page
to learn how you can fly to all 30 MLB cities for a lot less than I imagined.

Hopper lets you plug in the airport of your choice and determines the cheapest or shortest route from there. I chose Philadelphia International and was surprised to learn that, in theory anyway, I could fly the route on the map above for $2,471.

Meshing all those discounted flights with the MLB schedule would be a colossal challenge. But it’s fun to dream.

My National League picks for the 2014 baseball season

These picks and $3 will get you a coffee and donut at Dunkin’ Donuts:

East

1. Atlanta – Top of a weak heap

2. Washington – They’ll make it interesting

3. New York – Struggle, they will

4. Philadelphia – It’ll be a long summer

5. Marlins – It’s always a long summer

Central

1. St. Louis – The team to beat in the NL

2. Piitsburgh – Another fine year

3. Cincinnati – Missing it by “this much”

4. Chicago – Friendly confines but little more

5. Milwaukee – It pains me to place them here

West

1. Los Angeles – It pains me to place them here

2. Diamondbacks – On the upswing

3. San Francisco – Rotation is beginning to fade

4. San Diego – This will be a tight race; they could go higher

5. Colorado – Another year or two of scraping bottom

At the risk of having all my fellow Giants fans bail forever, I’m picking the Dodgers to take the NL pennant and (brighten up, Bay Area!) lose to the Rangers in the World Series.

My Amerian League picks for the 2014 baseball season

These picks and $4.50 will get you a cup of coffee at Starbucks:

East

1. Boston — Sizemore, win more

2. New York — A close second

3. Tampa Bay — Another “so close” season

4. Baltimore — One of these years, but not 2014

5. Toronto — Still the best team in Canada

Central

1. Detroit — Too much talent

2. Cleveland — Playoffs again, if briefly

3. Kansas City — Better, but not best

4. Chicago — Poor

5. Minnesota — Poorer

West

1. Rangers — Too many bats not to prevail

2. Oakland — All-around strength

3. Los Angeles — Persistent under-achievers

4. Houston — Wild hunch; I may be the only one on the planet not to pick them last

5. Mariners — Sorry and soggy year ahead

I predict the Rangers will make it to the World Series and win the whole shootin’ match, to use Texas phraseology.