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NOISE FROM THE DUGOUT

Romancing the Game
By Tom Goldstein

I have a confession to make: I've never read Shoeless Joe. Or, for that matter, anything by Bill Kinsella, save for a few short stories (including one, "The Lime Tree," that appeared in the Winter, 1998 issue of EFQ, my first as publisher). Ditto for Mark Harris and Bang the Drum Slowly, as well as the other two books in the Henry Wiggen trilogy. (I didn't get to Bernard Malamud's The Natural until 1998.)

In fact, other than devouring the "Larry of Little League" stories and The Kid from Tompkinsville in grade school, the first baseball novel I read was John Hough's The Conduct of the Game in 1990. Although I'm well aware that baseball literature includes much more than the fiction genre (notwithstanding our popular culture's obsession with baseball novels turned box office hits), I've only come to appreciate baseball writing as literature during the past ten years or so. I might even suggest that my passion for the literary world of baseball has increased at a rate inversely proportional to my loss of enthusiasm for the Major League Baseball experience these days. At least that's how I rationalize spending all my free time editing and publishing a journal such as this rather than going to the ballpark.

It's more complicated than that, of course. Small press journals that don't pay salaries tend to become all-consuming activities if they are to survive, and with other concerns as well—including family and work—watching a mediocre team that plays indoors isn't a big priority for me. Besides, how does one remain committed to a club when its humorless billionaire owner has been on a never-ending quest for a publicly-financed stadium (public opinion and the taxpayers be damned) the past seven years and threatening (explicitly or implicitly) to move the team for at least a decade?

Obviously, many fans can look past the average team mogul's obsession with money, stadiums, and overhauling the club's roster every year, and maybe those folks even convince themselves that visiting today's mallpark is just like going to games as a kid. Unfortunately, I'm not able to do that. And if my alienation doesn't resonate with others of you out there, perhaps my situation is a bit easier to understand.

I came to baseball fandom around 1965, about the same time that Frank Howard joined the Washington Senators via an off-season trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Howard, a six-foot-seven-inch slugger, was a larger-than-life figure who made rooting for a perennial loser seem like the most exciting thing an eight-year-old boy could ever experience. (And with televised games few and far between back then, Howard's stature reached mythical proportions as I listened regularly to his home run exploits on the radio.) Throw in a grandfather who could spin tales about the great Walter Johnson and a mom who kept a scrapbook of the 1933 Senators (the last Washington team ever to win a pennant), and it's not hard to imagine why baseball became an obsession for me.

By the seventh grade I probably knew as much baseball history as most folks learn in a lifetime, and I could recite stats, stories, and anecdotes late into the evening. (I'm pretty sure I was one of the few thirteen-year-olds in the country to have read Robert Peterson's Only the Ball Was White and Jim Bouton's Ball Four the year they were published in 1970.) Sports were something I lived and breathed, and like many young boys reaching adolescence, I valued heroes—athletes I could look up to as I competed on the ball fields and basketball courts at the neighborhood park.

The 1960s were a blissfully ignorant time for kids like me, living and dying with our baseball teams' fortunes while young men died in a senseless war overseas. I'd like to pretend that I went to dozens of games in my youth, but with D.C. (later RFK) Stadium a fairly long haul from my parents' suburban Maryland home, I was pretty lucky if I got to three or four games a year. (Sometimes my buddy Jack Kamerow and I would even go there by bus, an adventure that involved a few transfers and probably two to three hours travel time. Imagine two fourteen-year-olds doing that today.) But I rarely missed a radio or TV broadcast as a kid, so it's as if I experienced firsthand every game the Senators played during that time.

Unfortunately, my baseball world got turned upside down in 1971. After the season concluded—with the Senators again at the bottom of the standings—owner Bob Short, an interloper from Minnesota with a penchant for high stakes business deals, moved the club to Texas. And just like that, my team was gone. I was powerless to do anything about it.

What next? Root for the Baltimore Orioles? They were our sworn enemies, for crying out loud! Become a fan of the Texas Rangers? With no national cable or radio networks in the early 1970s, following that team would have been difficult even if I were so inclined (I wasn't).

I suppose I should mention that the whole Senators thing came at the end of a year in which I had been elected captain of my eighth-grade basketball team, only to spend the entire season losing my confidence while wasting away on the bench. But then people might think that losing my baseball team cut an indelible scar into my psyche, when the truth is that I never turned away from the sport. I continued to follow baseball with a passion, watching games on TV, reading the box scores every morning, getting pumped for the World Series every October. Heck, I was even a Twins season ticket holder in 1984 and 1985.

But another truth is that part of me could never move on. As much as I hated the Senators' losing ways, they were still my team, my guys. I certainly wasn't going to abandon them for greener pastures in Baltimore or somewhere else. But I never planned on them leaving me, either. So like the iconic image of JFK frozen in time, I still see my "boys of summer" as the young team of ill-fated heroes they once were. (Even meeting them in person thirty years later at a Senators' reunion doesn't change that perception.)

The bottom line is that I haven't been able to get behind another team the way I cared about those 1960s Senators. Maybe it's a silly little romantic notion to remained attached to a team that had just one glorious season (the remarkable 86–76 record achieved by the Ted Williams' managed 1969 club), but for me, I guess that's what loyalty has come to represent. Embracing a group of mercenary millionaires who will put down roots just long enough to snare a fat contract before moving on (and leaving behind a trail of disappointed fans) isn't my idea of a worthy replacement; I'd feel like I was selling out. Abandon the Senators for the current Minnesota Twins? No thanks.

Okay, maybe this isn't about romance or the quality of one's life. Maybe I'm just a sap, a jilted lover who got burned and was too much of a baby to get over it. And maybe I don't want another love, because I'd rather feel sorry for myself. Perhaps. Except that I don't spend a lot of time waxing nostalgic about that Senators team of my youth. Instead, I do what I can to enable others to appreciate baseball as the authentic experience it was for me as a kid, even if my efforts are limited to putting out a little journal that's unknown to most baseball fans.

So here at EFQ we'll keep railing against Major League Baseball's idiocy, opposing stadium boondoggles, and criticizing the home run derby that passes for an "exciting" game these days. But we'll also bring you stories about wonderful connections with the game, wherever and whenever they're found, whether it's from one's past, one's imagination, or an ongoing experience. And with any luck, we'll continue to be blessed with a wide-ranging group of generous contributors who regularly send us good writing about baseball from all corners of the globe.

Maybe this commitment doesn't seem especially interesting or wonderfully romantic to others, but I'd like to believe that it's the kind of thing that one day might get me back to the ballpark on a regular basis, even if only as a vicarious fan. Hopefully, we'll be able to count on you to be reading along.

—EFQ

TOM GOLDSTEIN has been clinically diagnosed as a hopeless romantic. He'd like to someday live in a city big enough to support a AAA franchise but not so small that people would think a Wal-Mart store to be a good thing.

This column first appeared in EFQ 18:2, Spring 2001

© 2001 Tom Goldstein

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