Flash! It’s the 2016 Baseball Solstice

Happy New Year and Happy Baseball Solstice, everyone! Today — January 1st — not only is the first day of the new calendar year but it’s also the midpoint between the last out of the 2015 World Series 2015 and the first pitches of Spring Training exhibition games on March 1.

I dreamt up the Baseball Solstice back in 2011 while recuperating from surgery and contemplating a long winter without the sport I love most. As 2016 begins, I’m again recovering from surgery, on the mend and very much looking forward to the new season.

To celebrate the solstice, I recommend that all fans connect with baseball in some way today. Watch a baseball movie like “A League of Their Own,” call your Mom or Dad or the uncle or aunt who helped you learn and love the game. Take your kids outside to play catch, with a snowball if necessary.

Me? I’m reading “1954: The Year Willie Mays and the First Generation of Black Superstars Changed Major League Baseball Forever” by Bill Madden. I’m about four chapters in and it’s a terrific read. I have a sense of foreboding that, in the end, things aren’t going to work out terribly well for my beloved Cleveland Indians.

Today I also figure to play with my younger son a new baseball dice and board game, “Bottom of the 9th,” that he got me for Christmas.  And speaking of gifts, my friend Andy in Los Angeles sent me the light-up San Francisco Giants displayed above, a wonderful addition to my collection of caps.

The Baseball Solstice represents hope and renewal. Please celebrate responsibly, and play ball!


Setting the annual Baseball Solstice

IMG_5776With the temperature flirting with 70 degrees today here in New Jersey, I’m aching for baseball even as I acknowledge we must endure weeks of winter before we hear “Play ball!” again.

So it’s high time to announce the annual Baseball Solstice, that precise point between the final out of the World Series and the first pitch of exhibition games renewing America’s Pastime for the next season.

The 2015 series ended at 12:30 a.m. EDT on Nov. 2 in New York as Wilmer Flores of the Mets struck out and the Kansas City Royals celebrated the end of a 30-year championship drought.

Those of us pulling for the Mets must wait till next year, in humiliating fashion for me as my sisters-in-law in the Kansas City area expressed their love by sending me a box full of Royals duds and swag.

It will be March 1 when we again hear the crack of the bat in the first handful of Grapefruit League games in Florida and one in the Cactus League in Arizona. (Follow Countdown to Spring Training for a daily dose of encouragement.)

That makes for an interval of 119 days, and thus we must fix the solstice on January 1, 2016, the first day of the new year on the secular calendar observed by fans of football, hockey, basketball, soccer and squash.

But we baseball fans know the day belongs to us.

So get out there that day and play some catch with someone you love or like (yes, even somebody in Dodger blue). Read some Roger Angell. Or watch a DVD showing highlights (singular, if you’re a Phillies fan) of your team’s 2015 season.

As the offseason deals continue to scramble rosters and cruelly give hope to Cubs fans, there’s no need for speculating on which team will prevail in 2016. It’s an even year, and it’s bye, bye baby: The San Francisco Giants will take it all.






A farewell to the Freak? I hope not

Just yesterday morning, waking up and moping over the morning news that the Giants had fallen to the Dodgers for a second consecutive night, I got to thinking that it would do the world good to see Tim Lincecum back on the mound.

Today, I woke up here on the East Coast to the news that the Dodgers had swept the Giants, which was bad enough. But then came the cruel word via Twitter that Tim Lincecum is done for the season.  After arthroscopic surgery in Colorado, he may have thrown his last pitch for San Francisco.

Say it ain’t so!

I’ve followed the Giants for the last 20-plus years, all the more passionately in recent years since the bloated Barry Bonds left their employ. So many dynamic players have donned their orange, black and cream uniforms in recent years, it’s hard to pick one’s favorite: MadBum, Buster, B-Craw, Kung Fu Panda, the Baby Giraffe, Sergio Roma, Brian “Fear the Beard” Wilson, Cainer, Hunter Pence and the signs that tauntingly follow him.

As great as they all are (or have been), nobody tops Timmy.

With his long hair and slashing delivery, Lincecum packed overpowering stuff into his relatively slight frame. Each time he took the mound, particularly in his early years, timed perfectly with the arrival of Twitter as a fan-bonding vehicle, the atmosphere was electric. “Happy Lincecum Day!” we tweeted, and those strikeout-stuff starts were must-see events.

But Lincecum’s appeal went beyond his dominating performances. A free spirit, Timmy embodied the free-wheeling nature of San Francisco and San Franciscans. After getting busted for pot possession in his home state of Washington, Lincecum grew even more popular. Vendors sold lots of “Let Timmy Smoke” T-shirts around AT&T Park (wish I’d bought one!).

Even as we started seeing signs of the inevitable decline, Lincecum continued to impress. His relief appearances were critically important to the Giants’ 2012 World Series victory. He tossed no hitters in 2013 and last year.

I don’t know what the future holds for Tim Lincecum, but I do know the past.

As a man and a fan, I’m wistful, while the kid in me is crying.

Meet the Matz

Another reason to like the Mets.

The On Deck Circle

Yesterday afternoon in Queens, New York, starting pitcher Steve Matz, making his Major League debut against the Cincinnati Reds, watched as the first batter he ever faced, Brandon Phillips, smacked a lead-off homer over the left-field wall.

The home crowd of 29,635 could never have guessed what would happen next.

Matz, apparently, had the Reds right where he wanted them.

The Long Island lefty, who grew up a Mets fan, quickly recovered his composure and shut down the Reds the rest of the way (other than a Todd Frazier solo homer in the 4th) on two runs and five hits through seven and two-thirds innings pitched.  Matz fanned six while walking three.  Of his 110 pitches, he threw 72 for strikes.

That manager Terry Collins let Matz go out and start the eighth inning after Matz had already thrown 90+ pitches through seven innings had as much to do with…

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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 Dec. 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 the 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.

Editor’s Note: For the origins of the Baseball Solstice, read my first post on the subject from back in 2011.

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.