Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Baseball’s Just a Game in the Eyes of the Young

(First published in April, 1999)   
   The baseball season began this week and New York Yankees' fans of all ages are optimistic, anticipating that by the time the leaves of autumn start falling, the most successful and legendary franchise in the history of professional sports will win its second straight and third World Series championship in four years, giving them their 25th championship in 76 years.
   Last year's record-setting 125 victories, while not entirely unattainable again, will be difficult to duplicate. Nonetheless, there have been relatively few roster changes, therefore it's reasonable to expect if the veteran players stay healthy, they can repeat as champs — something no Yankee team has done in over 20 years.
   Despite one major change, the acquisition of five-time Cy Young Award-winning pitcher Roger Clemens, which compensates for the loss of maverick David Wells, the Yankee pitching staff remains somewhat suspect, due to age, durability and temperament, plus the absence of a competent left-hander. No baseball team has ever been a champion without a strong southpaw and unless the Yankees acquire one before early summer, they may have to disprove the theory that it is impossible to go all the way without the requisite strength of a left-handed hurler.
   As a lifelong fan, I've devoted considerable time engaged in the New York Yankees' annual fortunes and misfortunes from April to the end of the season, which, in my lifetime, too often concluded in September rather than October. However, in recent years, I have viewed the Yankees' triumphs from the pure perspective of two little boys—quasi-nephews, if you will — Jacob and Noah.
   Now 12, Jacob, who prefers to be called Jake, is the youngest son of good friends who live upstate New York. Noah is the 7-year-old son of friends who live in Florida. Though the boys have never met, nor do their parents know each other, I initially connected and grew extremely fond of both kids, essentially through our mutual affection for baseball, especially, the New York Yankees.
  In the wake of the strike that subsequently forced the cancellation of the World Series a few years ago, the multiplying greed that had dominated America’s pastime repelled me, along with millions of other disgusted fans. Though baseball I, and every other professional sport for that matter, is primarily a business, most fans are drawn to it as unsuspecting youngsters for pure entertainment value and sheer enjoyment, not yet aware or tainted by the self-serving attitudes of profit-minded -owners and egotistical players.
  My pessimistic attitude towards baseball was gradually transformed when I heard or occasionally saw how Jake and Noah, due mainly to youthful naivete, freely delighted in and absorbed the game. That innocence allowed them — and rekindled for me — sandlots and neatly trimmed amateur baseball fields, teaming the basics of hitting, catching and throwing. Their first contact with the financial impact of the sport probably comes when parents start buying the essential equipment — bats, gloves, uniforms, and assorted accessories. It is several years before these youngsters realize the degree of money that's involved in the profession on the major league level.
   What is striking about both "nephews" is that while each possesses individual and unique athletic determination, plus headstrong personalities, they are, in spirit, brothers in baseball and, like many of their peers, derive elementary joy from the sport with childlike simplicity, seeing the game exclusively for its competitive suspense, not the underlying business it actually is.
   Both youngsters, coincidentally, also extract a vast amount of statistics and minutiae continuously aired television shows, such as ESPN's Sports Center, that, in conversation, they eagerly relay to me. I'll patiently listen and often am more astonished by their limitless ability to acquire what, for me, is essentially trivial, but, for them, is crucial information.
My interest at their respective ages, though avid, was never as potent. I regularly followed the Yankees' annual pennant chase as a youth, but I recall being more concerned about the latest dilemma facing Howdy Doody and the weekly exploits of Superman, rather than batting averages and last nights' highlights, which, back then, were only available in newspapers or briefly on evening news shows.
   Jake, Noah and I had been anxiously awaiting the start of the 1999 baseball season and  hoping our Yankees can do it again. Now that the season has commenced, I envision inevitable conversations with them about Derek Jeter's latest amazing throw from the shortstop hole, Clemens' 10-strikeout shutout, Bernie Williams' four homers in two games, Tino Martinez' multi-game hitting streak or Paul O'Neill's recent clutch, game-winning RBI.
   My friends and I periodically talk about the Yankees and the 'state of the game, but it's an insignificant, detached segment of our discussion. Consequently, I'm indebted and grateful to two special boys  Jake Richman and Noah Gatsik  and their parallell exuberance for helping me recapture the passion and providing me with a refreshing outlook as I watch baseball played by the Boys of Summer.
   Seeing my nephews’ wide-eyed, animated excitement for the sport made me realize, and appreciate, that for younger fans, baseball is as it should be — simply just a game.