The Batter Up #1: Where Have You Gone, Joe Shlabotnik?

When I was planning to post the first edition of a regular baseball project for The Cinema 4 Pylon originally a few months ago, my beloved Cincinnati Reds were just about to win their first three games of the season.

It is now the end of May -- Memorial Day Weekend, to be precise -- and the Reds are a very sad 15-33, mired in the bottom of the National League Central Division, a full eighteen games behind the division-leading Chicago Cubs. This includes, as of this writing, an ongoing eleven-game losing streak, which from all reports on the Reds website has been devastating to the team, though they had tried to prepare fans going in that this season was not going to be very easy. While I am happy to see the recent success of the Cubbies and root for them when they get close to the big prize like anyone should that is not an outright Cubs hater, I always stick hard to my very first favorite team. I will forever root for the Reds... well, if not forever, then at least until my dying days (I imagine a prolonged illness so it gives me time to say a few things to a few people, though I will probably get hit by a bus in actuality.)

Yes, I will forever root for the Cincinnati Reds (for reasons that I will get into in future editions). But the way that I root for that team, and just how hard I root, has definitely changed over the past decade. My once Grand Canyon-deep connection to the sport that was once long understood to be our "National Pastime" (everyone knows that it is social media now... I read it on Twitter) has eroded greatly in recent years. This is highly ironic because, after years of being "stuck" in Anchorage, Alaska, where the closest big league team is only reachable via a plane trip or a long down through Canada (the Seattle Mariners), I finally moved to an official Major League Baseball city. Well, sort of... I moved to Anaheim, which doesn't get to claim its team as its team exclusively anymore. 

Until recently, I lived in Anaheim, about five miles away from Angels Stadium. While I do not drive at all, it was only a brief 1.3 mile walk to a bus stop where I could catch a ride straight to the stadium to see a game. I had always sworn when I lived in Alaska that if I moved near or to a major league city, that if I didn't get season tickets, I would at least see as many games as I possibly could during the season. So, over the course of a full decade living in Anaheim, how many Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (see? a profoundly stupid name) games did I end up watching live and in person? Eleven.

I talked big, but the stick I was carrying was only one of those baseball bat-shaped pens they used to hand out as promos at Anchorage Glacier Pilots games when I was a kid. I got to a big league city and squandered my opportunity. I flubbed the easy-peasy fly ball. I had the bat resting on my shoulders softly as the called third strike -- thrown right down the middle -- blew past. I was my own goat.

Part of the reason for my reticence in seeing more games in my time in Anaheim (we moved away to another California county and town about a year ago) was the fact that I never really made many friends in Anaheim. I had friends here in Southern California, but most of them were co-workers, many of whom drove great distances to get to work, and so were not always readily available to just drop things and catch a game at a moment's notice on a Sunday afternoon. I had an old pal from Alaska that lived down the road a short ways from me, and loads of old friends and acquaintances in the L.A. area, but I rarely if ever saw any of them due to my having a decided lack of mobility because I didn't drive in an area where "nobody walks". The main problem is that I never made "local" friends at all. I was friendly with neighbors, but never to the point where we did things together. And Jen (the wife), while I convinced her to go to a couple of Seattle Mariners games over the early course of our relationship, is not a fan of the sports at all (even with, or especially because of, being an athlete in her teenage years). She had no intention of ever going to a Major League Baseball game again if she could help it. And so I had nobody to regularly go to games with me.

While I went to most of those eleven games stag, I did have some fun meeting the people in the seats around me. I once bought a cheap ticket in a section out in right field when New York was in town, and inadvertently got seated with several dozen, very boisterous Yankees fans out in right field; "Moose" Mussina threw something like a two or three-hitter and Angels fans were really pissed. I also got to go to a few games where the tickets were given to us as promos through people we knew at my soccer gig, and so some friends from the office would sometimes join me for a game. And each time that I did go to an Angels game, baseball was the same for me, the crowds were the same, the ballparks were wonderful and clean, and I made sure to keep to my routine: hot dogs, peanuts, popcorn, and a box of Cracker Jacks if I could find them. I would buy at least one pack of Topps (and only Topps) baseball cards on each visit, in keeping with my childhood tradition, so I could have the fun of opening the pack while sitting watching the game. So, while I did not go to a lot of games in a full decade in Anaheim, the sport of baseball -- live baseball -- was still just as fun for me. The experience was intact. The disconnect was not there.

Where does the disconnect lie? People often give a myriad of reasons as to why they no longer care about a sport or sports anymore, and they are all pretty viable, if not cliched: Astronomical player salaries (not taking into account the astronomical salaries of the people hiring those players or who own the clubs, who took deep and often dark advantage of the players for the first hundred years-plus of professional baseball's existence). Ballpark costs to supposedly compensate for those astronomical player salaries. The game is too slow. Too boring. Lengthy between-pitch batter routines. Lengthy between-pitch pitcher routines. Throwing to first base to check a runner over and over and over. ESPN and the rise of loudmouth sports punditry (which is nowhere near as bad a loudmouth political punditry, but yeah, I kind of agree). Too many commercials during games on television. Too much or too little of everything. What it comes down to is nobody's goddamned happy any more with anything, nobody has enough time, or if they have enough time, they have too little patience. We are fidgety and distracted and ill-informed. And, according to the internet, we hate everything before it even happens, and we hate everyone involved in everything.

Me? I just stopped caring. Part of this is due to the depression that I was developing that was slow-growing, nagging, and unspoken for many years. But a lot of my lack to care about baseball anymore was due to slight changes in the culture of baseball itself. My early love for the statistical side of baseball waned when real, genuine, brainy nerds like Bill James came in and gave us too many statistics. You would think that I would have embraced this development and I did at first, plunging headlong into the first edition of James' Baseball Abstract when it hit the mainstream shelves. But I discovered that it was that laser-focus on the minutiae of the game that drove me slowly away from the deeper statistical side. Suddenly, the stats that I grew up worshipping (homers, ribbies, batting average, simple wins and losses, and ERA) were no longer considered to be the stats that told the supposedly true story behind the success or failure of a player or his team. Sure, they are still the stats that everyone boasts about at Hall of Fame ceremonies and when the major awards are handed out annually, but once teams started to get run based on the more arcane stats, I checked out slightly.

A large part of my disconnect was also with the players, but not in the way that you might imagine. While I loved the movie when it came out (and still do), Bull Durham did more to damage my view of athletes themselves than anything else. I started paying attention to rote interviews and tried to find traces of commonality in what the players were saying. I started to realize that the bulk of the player's voices I heard were remarkably close to being "Nuke" LaLoosh in real life, and while Crash Davis (the type of player I most admire) recommended this form of generic call-and-response as a means to give the people what they want to hear and nothing more, I expected more from players than simply "take it one game at a time". It's the same anger I feel towards people who start the day blowing any qualms they have to bits by exclaiming "same shit, different day" and caving in to acceptance of their lot. 

I really don't care how much a player makes (I assume they deserve to be paid by the multi-billionaires who own the team); I just want the players to be someone with whom I can identify in even a small way, and I started to realize that over many years, I had nothing in common at all, apart from a love for baseball, with the people that I was rooting for on the diamond. While I could still be impressed by sheer athletic ability, hard-nosed drive, and smart play during a game, I did start to remove myself ever more slightly from really caring what went on during the baseball season. Why am I cheering on idiots who dive recklessly headfirst into a personal relationship with mouth cancer by chewing on hunks of horrid tobacco? And then disgustingly and obnoxiously expel their noxious sputum onto the ground with a violent heave every chance they get? Who are these neanderthals scratching their crotches on the public airwaves?

The controversy surrounding steroids and other illegal substances in baseball is one that gets mentioned quite a lot, and yes, it played a serious hand in my disconnect from the sport. The revelations surrounding Mark McGwire were personally devastating to me, as I had a couple of opportunities to not only meet Mr. McGwire, shake his hand, and have him sign my glove when he played first base for my hometown Anchorage Glacier Pilots (one of our local semi-pro teams) in the 1982 season before he hit the minor leagues. I followed him rabidly for many years, and while rumors followed him through his record-shattering homer years, he was a big strapping kid when he was young. And so nice. It was hard to believe that he was involved in something so underhanded. When all was revealed, it was hard for me to admit it, but like with Pete Rose, I had lost a hero.

I mentioned ESPN and their sports punditry earlier, and yeah, that has played a big part in my lack of ability to care about sports anymore. It had grown (and continues to grow) increasingly absurd over the years, and I soon became very weary of hearing 27 different opinions about an upcoming event or an issue in the sports world, and having all 27 of those opinions come out wrong when the actual event aired or the issue was resolved in a court or wherever. I exaggerate, of course; the actual number is far less than 27 but the feeling from watching certain ESPN "news" broadcasts is that of being surrounded by drunken nitwits who all have to get their stupid opinion in about something, and since no one is likely to call them on it later, they can say anything they want with full abandon.

Oh, yeah, that reminds me... sports bars. Avoid them at all costs.

The end result of all of this casual, gradual erosion of sports fanaticism in my mind is that I inexorably inched my way toward ceasing to really care about baseball at all anymore. Over the past five years, I have skipped the regular season broadcasts as a whole, and only watched the playoffs and World Series for the first two years. The third year I only watched the World Series, two games of the World Series the fourth year, and last year, and only three innings of one World Series game last post-season, even though I was rooting superficially for the Kansas City Royals (the residual effect of having been a major George Brett fan back in the day). I still occasionally read articles and kept up with the scores and standings on MLB.com, and also still caught sporadic highlights on ESPN over those five years, but I really stopped committing any time at all to simply sitting and watching baseball.

And now... here we are. It is the 2016 Major League Baseball season, we are almost two full months in, and I am feeling different. I realized some things about myself in the past year, especially given that, being out of work for a full year, I have had a lot of writing time where I have attempted to grapple hard with various demons and fears, trying to purge them in a concentrated effort to decrease the darkness that had been growing inside me. 

One thing that I realized in moving into a new home, with a new larger office setting where my various collections can be housed, is that I am surrounded fully by baseball memorabilia, including a couple hundred thousand baseball cards dating as far back as 1953, including every Topps card ever released of Johnny Bench. I have team hats and programs and posters and photos and pennants and several years worth of old Baseball Digest issues from my youth. I have a box full of old 1976-1977 RC Cola All-Star cans. Staring at me from a shelf, one of those RC Cola cans had long ago been converted into a transistor radio with Johnny Bench's visage still gleaming broadly from its faded surface. I have a library of about a hundred or so non-fiction and fiction books about baseball, most of which I have not even looked at in recent years except for packing and unpacking for various moves. I have autographed baseballs of Johnny Bench and Brooks Robinson sitting on the shelf behind my desk, still loved but not getting as much in the way of admiration as they used to get. It's not the crazy, multi-room spanning collection that a baseball nut who grew up in a major league city would have, but for a boy lodged in Anchorage, Alaska for the first forty years of his existence, it's a pretty good one.

All of this flotsam and jetsam in my home office pointed to one fact: at a certain place in my history, I was a full-bore baseball fanatic. (And if you got the not-so-subtle hint that Johnny Bench, of those same Cincinnati Reds, was decidedly my favorite ballplayer of all time, then you weren't paying very close attention at all.)

So, while I am still surrounded by all of this baseball memorabilia, what happened? What went wrong between me and this sport I once loved so much I couldn't think straight? I used to live and breathe baseball. I listened to ballgames weekly on my tinny Donald Duck transistor radio as a kid (I chiefly remember this as my first full introduction to Vin Scully), a single headphone plug plunged into my left ear. I couldn't wait to go to the next Glacier Pilots game, where I would sit in the meager stands and dream someday of attending a Major League Baseball game in a real stadium. And up until I left Alaska in 2005, I would take off Opening Day from work every year to watch the first day's worth of games on TV (you know, back in the time when Cincinnati -- the oldest professional team in existence -- was awarded the then-honor of starting off each season with the first game). How had I fallen so far away from the sport?

It became obvious to me that it was finally time for me to write about baseball. Not just my love for the game, but more exactly, my lost love for the game. When I conceived the notion of an ongoing series of articles about my relationship with baseball, I decided to make some small preliminary measures to attempt to renew my acquaintance with the sport. I downloaded the MLB app to my iPhone and iPad so that I could follow my favorite teams day to day anytime that I wished to do so. I watched a triple header on "Opening Day" on ESPN (what they call "Opening Day" is never really Opening Day anymore, another thing that I hate) -- three straight games to see if I could summon up that old "baseball fever". (I only caught it a little bit; two of the games were mostly unmemorable, which is not the attitude that I used to have for even the most rote of games.) I still had a long way to go. 

I pulled some of the baseball books off my shelf and started to read through them for the first time in ages, and in an odd bit of coincidence, my old pal Squeak sent me a mysterious package in the mail. When when I opened it up, it was a 1954 hardcover printing of Grantland Rice's The Tumult and the Shouting that Squeak had obtained and read recently, and wished to pass on to the other big baseball buff that he knew. While only a few of the collected pieces within the quite excellent book are about baseball, it was enough to whet my appetite for more. And I finally decided to get reacquainted with those musty issues of Baseball Digest, that I mainly kept for just such an occasion as this, the point where I was ready to start talking about baseball.

In The Batter Up series, I will concentrate solely on baseball. My reasons for calling the series "The Batter Up" I will divulge about four or five pieces into the series, but will keep a mystery for now. (Seriously, for anyone who followed baseball in the late '70s, the clues are here.) The topics will be as broad as baseball culture itself, taking in favorite moments in games, favorite players, personal disgraces on the field, my massive memorabilia collection, baseball book and movie reviews, and anything else connected with the sport. If you never had baseball fever, that's your problem; feel free to skip these articles if you are uninterested in the subject. But for my friends who stick around, I hope you will enjoy the articles. You are likely to learn to a good deal more about me in the process, from an area of my life and memory about I have written only rarely. 

And if you don't know who Joe Shlabotnik is, I will be writing about him (and his famous biggest fan) in the near future as well. Or, if you don't know (or can't wait to know), in the words of Casey Stengel, "you can look it up"...

RTJ

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