In a team sport that showcases individual expression, it’s style born of substance that truly endures.
By Bob Socci
If these are truly my son’s formative years, there are a few things I hope he’s erased from memory. Starting with the second time he ever ventured near a ball field.
I only excused the first because I’m quite confident that he never bothered to take note of that experience. It occurred around the end of his ninth month, when Dad decided to steer his stroller toward the diamond of a nearby prep school.
Teething at the time, the “G-Man” was less enamored with the game unfolding before us than with the idea of sinking his gums into a fence post. We lasted a half inning of mostly swings and misses, thankfully saving his synapses from being overloaded by pings of aluminum.
About a month later on another guys’ day out, we were at a neighborhood park, where my youngster was happily swinging away on the playground. Soon enough, sounds from an adjacent field caught our attention.
Pop. Pop. Pop. It was the unmistakable drumbeat of balls meeting gloves. Kids were playing catch. A game was about to get underway.
“G” and I headed in that direction; I pushing his stroller uphill toward the outfield fence. We would have made it for the first pitch, but we couldn’t beat nap time. So, parked in some shade beyond the right-field corner, the “Little Man” got some shuteye.
I can only hope that what he saw upon awakening that day struck him as a bad dream, to be erased from memory as quickly as possible.
It wasn’t so much the sight of the Dodgers playing eight-on-nine against the Phillies that sounded an alarm. Shorthanded for whatever reason, they still managed to cover the outfield with just two players — one positioned in left-center and the other in right-center.
If fact, I tried to use it as a teaching moment. I explained how my childhood friends and I used to solve similar dilemmas in pick-up games. We simply closed off right or left field, depending on the batter. Any opposite-field hit was an automatic out. And if we were short of infielders, pitcher’s mound was designated “as good as first base” on force plays.
Other than rain, I said to my son, we never had a reason not to play ball. If there were three of us, we played “hot box” or, as some prefer to call it, “pickle.” If there were two, we had a catch. And if it was me alone, I played “wall ball.” Uninspired, he just munched away on a Baby Mum-Mum rice cake.
I also laughed over the irony of the Dodgers of all teams playing a man down, considering the state of their major-league namesakes. Obviously, I joked, they couldn’t afford to pay a third outfielder. Unimpressed, my boy held out his hand, hoping for another Mum-Mum to chew on.
That’s about when, suddenly, I had to grind my own teeth; taken aback by the appearance of one of the Phillies. Resting atop the bill of his red cap and shading the white “P” on this beautifully sunny late afternoon was a pair of wrap-around sunglasses.
Right here, right now, one of my all-time biggest pet peeves from pro ball was infiltrating the youth level. And threatening to corrupt my first born’s idea of how the game should be played.
Still fearing the implications, weeks later I was tempted to wake him late on a Sunday night, when I heard commentator Bobby Valentine calling out the otherwise lovable Pablo Sandoval of the San Francisco Giants. Sunglasses resting on his visor? Upside down, no less? What purpose can they possibly serve?
My point, exactly! And one I’ve repeatedly stressed; often after watching a fielder struggle to see a pop-up with his naked eyes because his tinted lenses were instead shielding the club logo.
It strikes me solely as a fashion statement — and a silly one at that. Far more practical and, I believe, infinitely cooler looking on a fielder are old-fashioned flip-downs.
Seriously, think about it as you picture a runner on third with less than two outs. A ball is lifted to the outfield, medium-deep. The outfielder instinctively flicks at his lenses. Eyes now shaded, he lines up behind the ball, so that momentum is moving forward when he makes the catch and unleashes his throw.
It’s that immediate reaction, the actual flipping down, that says — no, shouts! — “I got it!” all the way. So substantive, yet so stylish.
Now, before going any further, in fairness to the junior Phillie, I must confess to indiscretions of my own youth. I was a kid who devoted hours trying to imitate ex-Giant and Padre Tito Fuentes, who had this remarkable knack of bouncing the handle of his bat off home plate and catching it as the bat recoiled toward his body.
Of similar effect in later years, I took my base on balls a la Lee Mazzilli, then a matinee idol with the Mets. Starting up the first-base line, just like Maz, I would toss the bat aside with one hand while chopping down on it with the other hand. Doing so sent the bat spiraling into foul territory, spinning like the tail rotor of a helicopter.
Occasionally, I was smart enough to emulate someone who simply cut the mustard. For my debut in organized ball as an 8-year old, mine was a mirror-image stance of future Hall of Famer Joe Morgan; my right elbow flapping like a chicken wing, as I waited on the pitch.
But unfortunately, I mostly patterned myself after hot dogs — usually, to the point of a fashion faux-pas. At age 11, I demanded that Mom stitch elastic to my stirrups so that I could stretch them from shoe tops to knee caps. By my teens, I was wearing the same Saranac triangle on my batting gloves and wristbands as the major leaguers I saw every night on TV.
I once even excused myself from English class when a sporting goods rep visited our high school: I just had to — had to — have cleats that matched our uniforms. Much to my present-day chagrin, I skipped a discussion on Thornton Wilder’s Our Town that afternoon for a pair of ill-fitting, maroon Mizunos. They were, after all, just like the ones worn by Pete Rose.
Every kid is impressionable; no one more than I was.
Eventually, I hung up those spikes — which, as it turns out, weren’t exactly the same as Rose’s hitting shoes — and found “work” in the game I was no longer good enough to play. With time, I developed a different understanding of what really makes a ballplayer look good.
It is, in essence, that difference between individual fashion and style. One is fleeting; the other enduring.
Take the act of — and reaction to — hitting a home run. Today you’ll find hitters who find it fashionable to flip their bats and/or Cadillac around the bases. You won’t find many, particularly opposing pitchers, who consider such antics tactful, much less artful.
Back in the eighties, Jeffrey Leonard was known as The Hackman and known for his self-described “one flap down.” After going deep, he slowly made his way on the bases, hanging one arm motionless at his side.
His contemporary Mel Hall had his own distinctive way of celebrating the long ball and insulting the opposition. He did it by stuffing his back pockets with extra batting gloves, so that their dangling fingers waved “bye-bye” on his home run trots.
Leonard and Hall totaled 27 seasons in the majors. Yet, by making such crass actions trademarks of their time, they made themselves laughable figures for years to come.
In sharp contrast, though his legacy needed no enriching, an all-time great like Mickey Mantle is celebrated for the way he humbly ambled on the base paths after all 536 of his lifetime homers. In eulogizing The Mick, broadcaster Bob Costas described how he and others of his generation imitated their boyhood baseball hero.
They ran like Mantle, Costas remarked with reverence, “head down, elbows up.” Mantle’s bat meeting ball was resounding enough. There was no need for a fashion statement.
Oh sure, there are plenty in baseball history who packaged performance with panache. No one did it quite like Rickey Henderson. But for all his swagger, Henderson was unique because he could practically guarantee the opposition a 1-0 deficit from the jump. As the all-time leader in steals and runs scored, he also holds the record for most home runs to lead off a game.
True, Henderson set trends, like with the way he chose to snatch fly balls rather than catch them. Yet, what makes him incomparable still is how he routinely turned walks into triples or punished opponents like no other for those first-inning, get-me-over fastballs.
We shouldn’t confuse Henderson’s on-field fashion with his style of play. One occasionally led to a flub; the other got him to the Hall of Fame.
What Henderson exemplified individually, the team he grew up watching in Oakland, the Swingin’ A’s of the early seventies, did collectively. Owner Charlie Finley wanted his cast of renegades to re-define baseball fashion. And they made quite an impression with their white spikes, bright yellow uniforms and long hair and mustaches.
But they achieved lasting greatness by winning three straight World Series. The A’s were most memorable because of Catfish Hunter starting and Rollie Fingers closing; Joe Rudi climbing the wall and Reggie Jackson clearing the wall; Bert Campaneris on the run and Gene Tenace in the clutch; and Sal Bando captaining them all.
While they looked a certain part, what truly made them stand apart, is that for three seasons in a row, they played the part of the game’s very best.
By all appearances, baseball allows for individuality more than any other team sport. Nonetheless, I’ve covered some organizations who limit expression in the minors by legislating uniformity. Until this year, for instance, the Baltimore Orioles mandated that all minor leaguers blouse their pants just above the calves.
For the Triple-A Norfolk Tides, in addition to fully exposing their black stockings, the policy added intrigue whenever a teammate was promoted to Baltimore: Would he keep his cuffs knee high? Or exercise his big-league right to let his pants go low?
In 1996, when I was calling games for Class A Delmarva, the parent Montreal Expos banned Shorebirds players from wearing those aforementioned sunglasses. Coincidence or not, that club was loaded with future major leaguers, including two of the team’s catchers (Michael Barrett and Brian Schneider) and its fourth outfielder (Jose Macias).
Who really knows if there was any positive effect on Montreal’s player-development cause? Perhaps, absent those sporty wrap-arounds, the Shorebirds kept fundamentals foremost in their sights. One thing’s for sure, there was never temptation to store their shades on the bills of their ball caps.
Ultimately, it’s hard to persuade a talented pro, let alone a teenage kid, that something like wearing sunglasses anywhere other than the bridge of his nose might be more a hindrance than help.
Someday, should my own son choose to play baseball, I might have to try to convince him of the same. Hopefully, he’ll be receptive. From what I hear, parents and their kids don’t always see eye to eye.
If he chooses to play something like the trumpet instead, my analogies might be different but my point will be consistent. However flashy your outfit is, it’s how well you hit your notes that defines how good you sound. True style, on the ball field or anywhere else, is born of substance.
That’s why I sure hope he was paying attention more recently, when we returned to that neighborhood park for a dip in the pool.
We cooled off on a hot afternoon and headed for the car. I was holding my now 1-year old in my arms, when I heard what sounded like a ball shooting off a bat. I turned in that direction, off in the distance to my left.
Two kids were in the middle of the diamond, accompanied only by bucket of baseballs. One was pitching batting practice to the other.
Best I could tell from afar, neither was sporting shades.
Bob has called Norfolk Tides games since 2006, in addition to his roles as the radio voice of Navy football and a freelance television broadcaster. To view and listen to samples of his work, please visit http://www.bobsocci.com.