Closing out our Pinch Hitters series is Bill Groskopf. “I am a bit older than most of the other guests,” he wrote, “having just retired from a career of 40+ years engineering in the oil & gas business. I grew up in western Nebraska where baseball was Dizzy Dean or Curt Gowdy on the televised Game of the Week. I didn’t actually see live baseball game until I was 22, a doubleheader in Kansas City with the out of town Yankees. Bobby Murcer took one deep.”
Bill lives in Denver with his wife of 40 years and their four children (and four grandchildren). He spends some time writing (www.AbsolomBracer.com) and some time in his wood shop.
Several month ago, Bill actually sent his entire blog post when he submitted his Pinch Hitter proposal, and I immediately tagged it for the finale. Pitchers and catcher report tomorrow. Enjoy.
And so it begins, another baseball season. Most of my family groans at the mention of baseball and shakes their collective heads at my fascination. I have heard it all from them; boring, slow, uninteresting, too long, etc. All of those criticisms ring true, but baseball is not a game of emotion and raw physical talent. Baseball is a game of contrasts and subtlety. Much of the game is beneath the surface, rising into view only occasionally and at unpredictable times.
Baseball is a game of character and of characters. The ability to pitch a baseball and to hit a baseball is capriciously given to random human beings. God shows us that he has a sense of humor when he hands out baseball talent. Where else can you see a star player, a man well into middle age, possessed of a pronounced belly, honestly earned from the brewer’s craft. This man who appears to find the walk to and from the mound as serious physical exercise, throws pitches that are unhittable.
Baseball has players so short that they can walk between the legs of the giants that play professional basketball, but they earn eight figure salaries because they can hit the baseball. Other players, so out of shape that they can barely manage to run around the bases, are stars because they can hit home runs. The talent in baseball comes in all shapes and sizes. For myself, as someone who missed out on size and athletic ability, I find this state of affairs in baseball to be comforting.
It is a game of character because the length of the season and the slow pace of play allow us to see into the personalities of the people who play the game. Modern cameras allow us to look into the eyes of a pitcher who is in a jam. In one pitcher’s eyes, we can see undisguised panic and know that a public meltdown is near. At another time and in another man we see only eyes of grey steel with gritted teeth. We see this is a man who is at his best when the chips are down.
In fact, it was revealed character; back in the mists of my early teens, that brought me to my life long fascination with baseball, with the New York Yankees. I am a Yankee fan. I have always been a Yankee fan. I find it more than a little strange to be a Yankee fan, as I am otherwise partial to lost causes and hopeless rebellions. To have a life long allegiance to a team from New York, a team that many call the “evil empire” goes against my biases on so many levels. It needs some explanation.
My affair with baseball and the Yankees began long ago. In that dim past, I saw an old news clip of Lou Gehrig making his farewell speech at Yankee Stadium. Shortly after that I saw the movie, Pride of the Yankees, with Gary Cooper as Lou Gehrig. That picture of a man, knowing he is dying of an incurable disease that will rob him of every last shred of dignity, that man humbly saying that he is “the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” It affected me. I never forgot it. As a teenager and young man, Lou Gehrig was a model to me of what a man should be.
Time has passed since then. Life and the compromises it brings have worn the shine from my teenage ideals. But the Yankees have remained, like an old friend whose reminisces evoke echoes of a past forever gone. Spending time with that friend sometimes allows me to remember the way it was. Sometimes when I watch a game, I can remember being away from home, lonely and nervous, on a jobsite deep inside Mexico when Reggie Jackson hit three home runs and rallied the Yankees from behind to win a World Series with the Dodgers. I can remember watching a baby, my daughter Suzanne, while listening on the radio to Louisiana Lightning, otherwise known as Ron Guidry, my favorite pitcher of all time, strike out 18 batters on a hot June evening. I can remember a warm August afternoon at a game in Kansas City with my family and some friends, watching a skinny young shortstop named Derek Jeter warm up in front of us. I can remember watching a game in Anaheim, sitting between my mother and my wife, joking about the old fat man, Bartolo Colon, who was unhittable that afternoon.
There is a lot about the Yankees that I find to be obnoxious. Big contracts and high-priced, aging stars aren’t attractive. The owners of the team seem to have all of the unattractive attributes of rich New Yorkers. But somehow, through it all, they have my loyalty. Where else can I close my eyes and see that humble man, the Iron Horse, with eyes downcast standing before a microphone, his words of gratitude echoing through that stadium?
Associated Press photo